‘I won’t be putting pen to paper. I’ve been ‘commenting’ for years, and it doesn’t make any difference.’ He’s old, grizzled, and disaffected. I’m in a hall in Colac, talking to people who have driven into town to be part of rethinking how we protect the health of the rivers of the Barwon. It’s the same examination of governance arrangements that is underway now for the Waterways of the West – the Maribrynong, the Werribee and the smaller creeks that run directly to Port Phillip Bay.
The room swarms with government employees. They are bringing government decision making into the public realm. Around the walls are the objectives and process of each study. Assessing long-term water availability, deciding water allocated for the next 10 years between human and environmental use, planning 50 years ahead for Geelong’s water supply – these are big topics. The machinery of government is on display.
The table where I’m sitting is for a Ministerial Committee considering how to improve the regulation and planning that affects rivers and wetlands. I’m listening to Daryl, who is disappointed that there’s no mention in the discussion paper just released about educating young people about the rivers and catchment. ‘It’s the quickest way to change attitudes, and that’s what we need,’ he says.
I have to agree, for here we are, talking with a few while the rest of the community guzzles its way through ridiculously cheap water without knowing that the real cost of water is born by rivers choked by weeds and stagnant in summer, without their natural flow. Low cost to consumers, and politicians deliver on their promises to keep the cost of government service down, but the true cost is hidden.
We use the water that rivers need for their life, and the rivers die. We choose low cost over the full cost of caring for waterways, and government agencies whose job is to look after rivers struggle on underfunded. Overloaded community groups plug holes in the dyke, while the rest of us blithely live out our days in ignorance.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Smart, educated, technical experts were going to get the facts, and guide governments, and we were going to leave them to it. But the facts of science tell a story that politicians find hard to act on, and here informed public opinion has an influence.
A little education would bring these dilemmas to children and adolescents. Part of being a responsible person, living in a specific landscape and benefiting from the services provided by government, is to understand the physical and governance processes that support your life.
Perhaps if children learned where their water comes from and the choices involved, come 2030, those children will show up at information days like this, to say what they think, and even to put pen to paper, finger to keyboard.
It's a big shift, to participate in decisions for the public good that were once left to our elders and betters. Our children’s education could do more to prepare them for this responsibility.