A Response to the Wentworth Group Written by me in 2002. An Idea that should be pursued.

The Menzies Group[1]— Initial Draft Notes

  • The Menzies Group has been formed by a group of concerned scientists, economists, historians politicians and farmers who are alarmed at the extreme position being taken by the Wentworth Group of scientists.  The aim of the Menzies Group is to achieve a more balanced position. It fears that if the extreme views of the Wentworth Group are allowed to go unchecked, Government intervention could do extensive damage to Australia’s future economic progress, and future initiatives to mitigate the impact of drought on Australia may not be taken.
  • The Menzies Group acknowledges that Australia has an ongoing need to remedy environmental damage as and when it occurs, but unlike the Wentworth Group has a far more positive view of Australia’s agricultural achievements since European settlement, a far more optimistic outlook for future sustainable productivity progress and a far less alarmist view of Australia’s present environmental condition.
  • The Menzies Group believes that man is an integral part of the environment and inevitably has an impact. It believes that the long-term interests of mankind should be paramount in debates on the environment. It accepts that environments, with or without the impact of man, are constantly changing and it is quite unrealistic to take any particular point in history and suggest that that point is the desirable state (nirvana). 
  • The Menzies Group has great respect for the ingenuity of man and suggests that history supports its contention that to extrapolate identified adverse developments without accounting for corrective action, is unrealistic. It further believes that providing the correct incentives are in place, numerous individual decisions are likely to have much greater impact than centralized ‘control and rule’ direction by Government.
  • The Menzies Group contends that the distinctive feature of Australia is not so much that it is a dry country (although that it certainly is), but the fact that it has some of the most unreliable rainfall in the world and swings from periods of extreme dryness (like now), to huge wets. As Dorothea Mackellar said “droughts and flooding rains”. She might well have added “and not much in the middle”. If man is going to make the most of such conditions it is imperative that he conserves in the times of plenty against the inevitable times of scarcity. Conservation can take many forms—ground cover (natural or improved pasture), hay, cash and water.
  • Our forebears quickly recognized that European methods would not work in Australia. With the help of some internationally outstanding agricultural scientists and engineers the largely barren Australian continent has been made hugely productive, albeit that we “have to roll with the rainfall punches”. Sure, there have been some negative impacts, but these need to be seen in context and the positives have far out weighed the negatives. And the negatives identified are nearly all manageable. Such has been Australia’s success that we now compete without subsidy with the most heavily subsidised agricultural producers of the world and supply enough food and fibre to feed and clothe some three to four times our own population.
  • We have to accept that droughts (and floods) are part of the normal Australian pattern. But, that does not mean that we should not take steps to mitigate their impact. To attempt to “drought proof”, is probably unrealistic, but the impacts can, and have been “cushioned”, particularly with the building of dams. It is important to recognize now (8th. December, 2002), that many of our inland rivers would have stopped running months ago if we had not conserved water in our dams in the last major flood (for northern NSW this was in November 2000).
  • If “we take the top off” floods to conserve water in our dams the downstream impacts are minimal and the benefits huge. Our forefathers showed great foresight in this regard. Sure there are some negative impacts, but the benefits are enormous. There is more that can and should be done.
  • It is quite extraordinary that some opportunists have used the present drought to promote a debate about water inefficiencies at a time when there isn’t any water! That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do all we can to use freshwater efficiently, but to infer that the present water shortages are the result of irrigation inefficiencies is demonstrable nonsense. If there is to be criticism of our water management it should be that we did not store more water at the time of the last flooding rains!
  • The biggest challenge facing us in water efficiency terms is how we lessen the impact of evaporation. Nature has given us the ultimate recycling system in the way salt water is converted to fresh water. The problem with fresh water is not one of quantity, but one of distribution over time and space.

[1] The Menzies Group takes its name from an alternative Sydney Hotel to the Wentworth, to which the Group retired for a drink after its first meeting. It notes that namesakes for both Groups (and the respective hotels), were great Australian’s with very positive attitudes to the growth and development of Australia!

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