ABC TV's flagship current affairs program Four Corners has again come in for more stinging criticism of its treatment of Australian agriculture.
This time it's over a 43 minute program on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan titled Cash Splash, which was broadcast on Monday night.
The selectively reported program examined the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, implying the environment had gained little under the plan.
Perhaps more damning is that key players including Water Minister David Littleproud, farmer organisation Cotton Australia, or the Murray-Darling Basin Authority were not contacted for comment by the national broadcaster.
Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray said the 'Cash Splash' story was riddled with factual errors and guided the audience down a path of misrepresentation about the fundamentals of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
"It is beyond disappointing to once again see the ABC's Four Corners program use its influential position to air another biased, inaccurate piece of journalism," Mr Murray said.
"It is understandable that the average viewer might have concerns about the plan's irrigation efficiency programs that the show focused on.
"Given the way the show was presented, it would be understandable for a viewer to question whether the environment has gained anything under the plan."
Mr Murray said at no stage did the program attempt to explain how the Basin Plan has recovered 2100GL of water for the environment, with just under 700GL coming from irrigation efficiency and infrastructure projects.
"There also wasn't any effort to highlight the economic stimulus communities have received from the programs, rather than the economic devastation straight 'buybacks' have afflicted on many basin communities," he said.
It is beyond disappointing to once again see the ABC's Four Corners program use its influential position to air another biased, inaccurate piece of journalism.
"The idea propagated by Four Corners that irrigators are using more water by taking up water efficiency schemes is false. The only way an irrigator can acquire more water is if they buy a licence that allows them access to more water from the existing water licence pool."
Mr Murray said under the plan, the government could either purchase water through buybacks or acquire water through funding irrigation efficiency schemes.
"While the upfront cost of buybacks is cheaper, the irrigator and their local community cannot make up for the lost production by the entitlement leaving the productive side for the environmental side," he said.
"Efficiency projects are a more appropriate option because irrigators can do more with their remaining water, thereby underpinning communities.
Mr Murray said Four Corners had 'spectacularly' failed to explain:
- The water entitlement-holder nominated how much water their proposed project would save, and what works needed to be done.
- The Commonwealth (either directly, through the states, or another third-party) then agreed on how much to fund the project and what share of the estimated savings it required (normally 50 per cent).
- The Commonwealth's share of the water entitlement was then transferred to its holdings as a licence entitlement.
"It is the irrigator who bears the risk; if the expected savings do not eventuate, there is no option for the irrigator to have the water entitlement returned, Mr Murray said.
"It is patently and demonstrably wrong to say there is no checking as to whether the savings are real. They are real, because the entitlement holder transfers the entitlement."
The Four Corners program also angered Water Minister David Littleproud, who said water efficiency projects returned water to the river system while protecting rural jobs and communities.
"It is unfortunate Four Corners did not mention this crucial fact," Mr Littleproud said.
"The Coalition uses water efficiency projects instead of water buybacks to recover water because water buybacks mean less farm production, less harvesting and packing jobs in small towns, and less money spent in the local pubs and restaurants.
"Water efficiency projects began under the previous Labor Government, after it had bought back nearly 1200GL of water and literally thousands of rural jobs were lost. The Coalition promised before the 2013 election to use water efficiency projects to recover water and we've delivered our promise."
Mr Littleproud said the plan had so far delivered 2100GL of water back to the river system with about another 500GL to go. 1200GL was recovered through buybacks mostly under Labor, 700GL through water efficiency projects and the balance through state government programs and gifted water.
"The water efficiency projects help farmers grow more with less water through projects such as replacing leaking old drains with modern pipes to save water, and as trade-off the farmer gives up some water entitlement which goes back to the river and is not available for purchase by irrigators again," Mr Littleproud said.
"Other common projects include installing drip irrigation to deliver dripping water directly to tree roots through a network of small pipes, to replace huge sprinklers or the flooding of entire paddocks."
Mr Littleproud said taxpayer funded water efficiency projects helped farmers grow more with less water, and return water to the river system.
"This way the river, the farmer and the community all win," he said. "The river gets more water, the farmer produces as much or more produce and this protects jobs for the local community.
"If that farmer or company uses other money to plant other crops or buy other water; that's up to them so long as all approvals are met.
"Australia is a free country."
Mr Littleproud said to suggest farmers were switching to high value crops because water was recovered through water efficiency projects was silly.
"They are switching to high value crops because they return more to the farmer," he said.
Water efficiency works are subject to risk-targeted spot audits by the federal Department of Agriculture, which has also had Deloitte carry out a separate audit. Delivery partners also check infrastructure works, he said.
Mr Littleproud said about 95 per cent of On Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program projects were worth less than $1 million, with average project size of $152,000 across the 1500 projects.
"These are almost all small projects involving small farmers, not big companies," he said.
Stand by your plan
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority said it stood by the fundamentals of the basin plan, and checked water take limits were being met.
"The latest report finds that farmers are not taking more water than is allowed under the Basin Plan," an MDBA statement issued this morning reads.
"While direct water purchase is cheaper than investing in irrigation infrastructure, research shows it causes more social and economic harm to regional communities."
Qld farmers disappointed
The Queensland Farmers' Federation also expressed disappointment in the Four Corners program, saying it failed to represent the full picture of irrigation and water management in the Murray Darling Basin.
QFF president Stuart Armitage said as a result of a cap on water usage, the total amount of water used by farmers did not change, regardless of the type of crops that were grown.
"And if the amount of water used on one farm increases from the purchase of water, the amount used on another farm must decrease from the sale of that water," Mr Armitage said.
"Farmers will use their water allocation to grow the most profitable crops available to continue their business, support their families, employ local people and underpin regional economies."
Mr Armitage said born from compromise, the basin plan was the best chance to better manage a scarce resource, hold water for the environment, while ensuring a sustainable level of consumptive take, and fairly address damaging socio-economic impacts.
Cotton Australia's Michael Murray said critics of the plan needed to act as positive players in this debate, rather than squeaky wheels.
"Farmers in drought-affected parts of Australia are doing it tough, cotton farmers included," Mr Murray said.
"This season, our crop was reduced by half due to the effects of drought, and will be reduced by half again next season if there is not any rain.
"Under the plan, water licence holders are the last to receive water allocations after critical human needs and the environment receive their share.
"We implore Australians to understand the facts and details around these important water issues before they blithely take to social media and venomously attack our farmers.
"It is highly disappointing to watch the ABC once again wilfully disregard its own charter requiring journalistic accuracy, balance and fairness, in order to satisfy its hunger for producing sensationalist television stories.
"We condemn the continued unbalanced reporting from the national broadcaster and call on them to do their job - report balanced, fair and factual pieces of journalism. This is a call we will not back down on."
Comment has been sought from Four Corners.