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Published: 05 May 2020   •   Media statements

Regarding: Channel 9, 60 Minutes, Sunday 12 April 2020

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (the Department) are submitting a formal complaint in relation to the 'Coronavirus: Growing Pain' episode of 60 Minutes that aired on 12 April 2020 (the episode).

We understand the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice 2015) requires that Current Affairs Programs ensure their reporting is presented factually, accurately and in a balanced way. We note that section 3.3 of the Code requires Accuracy and fairness and 3.3.1 states In broadcasting a news or Current Affairs Program, a Licensee must present factual material accurately and ensure viewpoints included in the Program are not misrepresented.

It is our view that the episode did not present factual material accurately, that the failure in this case was material and that information which would have ensured an accurate and balanced presentation of the issues was readily available.

Factual error 1: the role of bureaucracies

The episode asserted: "The dilemma we face is highlighted in the nation's food bowl, where bureaucrats are refusing to give farmers along the Murray River access to the water they need to grow vital crops." and "Despite our national treasury being opened to deal with the pandemic's economic impact, the bureaucrats who control the irrigation gates on the Murray are still selling water to the highest bidder and the farmers here just can't afford it."

This is incorrect. The facts are:

  • Government agencies who operate the river system do not sell water.
  • The main reason there isn't much water available is the low inflows in the River Murray system over the last few years.
  • As in any free market, when water is in demand sellers of water can command a high price. When it's plentiful water is cheaper. Farmers are business people and it is up to them to decide which crop is financially viable for them and when.
  • Many government agencies are involved in water management, all of whom endeavour to work together in the best interests of river communities, industries and the health of the river.
  • The dilemma is that farmers who own lower security licences that provide less reliable access to water along the Murray River have not received an allocation to grow their crops.

Factual error 2: staple food

The episode stated: "Two years ago, this region [the 'southern Murray'] produced 60 percent of Australia's grain and dairy."

The interviewee Mr Chris Brooks said: "We're actually relying on other countries to supply us our staples – rice, dairy and wheat" and "Not only is it difficult to source from those countries but it's getting more and more difficult to physically get it here. That's a big risk the government's taking."

These statements were uncontested by the interviewer. The correct information is:

  • Australia produces much more food than it consumes.
  • Staple food such as dairy and wheat is still produced in volumes greater than we can consume in Australia.
  • Murray dairy accounts for 21% of national milk production and 24% of export volume. Most dairy is outside the Basin and is still meeting our needs.
  • Wheat is not under threat. We aren't reliant on irrigated wheat from the southern Murray—it is grown elsewhere in Australia as a dryland crop.
  • Rice production varies substantially with water availability and price, making good money when water prices are low and pausing production when prices are high.
  • The Department has ready information about the robust nature of Australia's food security, which could easily have been provided to 60 Minutes had they asked for it.

Factual error 3: 'opening the gates'

The episode asks: "Could opening the gates give us a boost that we so desperately need in these hard times?" The interviewee Chris Brooks states: "We don't want money, we just want our water back."

This question and answer is based on a false notion that there is spare water available. The facts are:

  • Nobody has taken anyone's water and there is no water to 'give back'.
  • Any water made available to those who currently don't have an allocation would have to be taken off another water user.
  • There is no spare water in the dams or the river system. All water is carefully accounted for in accordance with the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement.
  • It has always been the case that low reliability licences provide a water allocation only after other identified priorities have been met.

Factual error 4: an 'easy fix'

The episode claims: "In these difficult days there are few sectors of the Australian economy that have an easy fix. But this is one of them. It really is just add water."

The facts are:

  • Adding water is not an easy fix—there is no extra water to add.
  • Adding water to one group of farmers would require a significant change to the system of entitlements for all farmers. This would undermine the value of water licences and the property rights of all water users.

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