Politics and dryland salinity

David J. Pannell

CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity and School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia, c/- WA Department of Agriculture, 444 Albany Hwy, Albany WA 6330, Australia


Political forces make it difficult to develop effective and efficient policies for dryland salinity. Tensions affecting salinity policy include urban political power versus rural salinity; short-term politics versus long-term salinity; crisis-driven politics versus slow and inexorable salinity; simplistic and uniform political solutions versus complex and diverse salinity problems; the need for winners in politics versus the reality of losers from effective salinity policy; east versus west; and national versus state governments. These tensions will interact with our improving scientific knowledge of salinity and ongoing social and economic changes in rural areas to shape future salinity policies. Prospects for changes in salinity policy over the next 10 years are suggested.


Ingredients of politics in a democracy include the values and attitudes of the voting community, the quest for power and survival by politicians and their parties, the ideologies and values of those political parties, the media as communicator and watchdog, the pursuit of resources, influence and effectiveness by the public service, and the attempts of special interest groups to have their interests met. Among the players there is a mixture of people seeking advantage for themselves or some group, and people seeking to do "the right thing" for the whole community. The outcome and the instrument of politics is government policy. In this paper I discuss the impact of politics on salinity policies, in the hope that this understanding may contribute to improved salinity policies in the future.

I will take politics to be the full range of social forces influencing government policy. Policy means the government’s laws, regulations, financial programs and their interpretation, administration and supporting structures. The players in politics may be categorised into at least five groups: the voting public, political parties, bureaucracies, interest groups and the media. The players may have widely differing perspectives and be in pursuit of widely differing policy outcomes.

Tensions between the reality of politics and the reality of salinity

Urban versus rural: National political priorities are dominated by the concerns of city dwellers. Most city people have lost all ties to rural areas, other than those with beaches. Earlier cultural attitudes towards farming as a morally or spiritually superior occupation are now all but non-existent in city communities. People are much more likely to be concerned with the environmental damage caused by agriculture than with the welfare of farmers or the economic productivity of agriculture.

Short-term versus long-term: The long time scales over which salinity processes operate will always make it difficult for the issue to be properly considered in politics. Even the shortest lag times in the most responsive catchments (say ten years) are long on a political time scale. The long time frames also provide opportunities for cynical politicians to get away with ineffective but politically attractive policies. I am not suggesting that all political responses are cynical. Some of them are just poorly informed. For example, it is likely that the Prime Minister was not briefed about the likely time lags before making this statement at the press conference announcing the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP): "This amount of money will achieve some practical real outcomes and real improvements at the end of the seven year period" (Howard, 2000).

Crisis versus slow deterioration: Politicians like a crisis. It attracts the attention of the community, and offers opportunities for heroic and helpful deeds. For a process as slow as dryland salinity, it is hard to justify a sense of crisis in most cases. The rapid change has been in people’s perceptions, rather than in the threat. A problem with conceiving salinity to be a crisis is that it is likely to prompt urgent and short-term responses, when the real need is for careful consideration and analysis before direct investments are selected, and for industry development activities that are inherently slow. In addition, there is some unreality in the depicted severity of dryland salinity. Its magnitude has often been overstated. Furthermore, for a crisis to be worth responding to with an immediate response, there must be actions that will mitigate the adverse conditions that are feeding the crisis. This is often not the case for salinity (Bathgate and Pannell, 2002; Kingwell et al. 2003).

Simplicity versus complexity: Politicians do not have the time to properly understand salinity, as the current Prime Minister has noted. "There have been so many reports on this. The thing had been the subject of multiple submissions and in the end I got tired of trying to assimilate all of the material and I suggested that we get four or five people who really understood the issue to draw up an action plan." (Howard, 2000). Policy proposals need to be simple and bland enough to achieve inter-governmental agreement, and this can tend to drive decision making to a lowest common denominator. Salinity needs a policy framework that is somewhat flexible in response to the needs of different types of salinity impacts, different groundwater systems, and different economic and social situations (Ridley et al., 2004). Complexity and diversity mean that there is no consistent message going to policy makers. One has sympathy for policy makers trying to decide whom to believe.

Fairness versus effectiveness: Politicians like everyone to feel that they are winners, or failing that, politicians like to closely control who are the winners and losers. It appears that political fairness tends to focus on the expectation of current recipients of funding. For salinity I see two other questions about fairness that seem at least as relevant. Is it fair to encourage farmers through joint funding to contribute towards works that will not actually make much difference to salinity? And is it fair to taxpayers to spend tax dollars in programs that will not be very effective in achieving their objectives?

Changing knowledge versus persistent policy: The very existence of a system of funding (e.g. for CMAs) creates considerable political pressure for its continuation. However our understanding of dryland salinity has changed markedly in the past decade. Given this change, the expectations that have been placed on CMAs are too great; it is unrealistic and inappropriate to expect them to take responsibility for all Commonwealth salinity funds (Pannell, 2001a, 2001b, Bennett, 2004).

East versus west: There are a number of factors contributing to political differences between east and west in relation to salinity. For the purposes of this discussion, the "west" would include those parts of South Australia outside the Murray catchment. Differences include: (a) different extents of salinised land; (b) different types of resources under threat (mainly terrestrial impacts versus water resources); (c) different current rates of land clearing (affecting political attitudes to options for living with salinity); (d) different levels of experience with management of salinity (affecting farmer tolerance of policies involving small subsidies for planting perennials).


The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality

Key weaknesses of the current national salinity program include its neglect of solutions that can only be achieved by government agencies (e.g. protection of rural towns, some environmental assets, and some water resources), its neglect of industry development and R&D, its neglect of options for living with salt, and its tendency to divert funds from public to private land. I do not envisage that these weaknesses will be addressed until the program has run its course and a subsequent plan is developed.

Beyond the current round of the NAP, at least three broad futures are possible:

  1. No continuation of a salinity-specific program, with salinity funding included within general funding for the environment and natural resources (as it was before the NAP).
  2. Continuation of a program largely similar to the NAP.
  3. Continuation of a salinity-specific program somewhat different to the NAP.

Of these I consider that 1 is the most likely, and 2 the least likely.

Catchment Management Authorities

The future of CMAs is hard to predict. I strongly suspect their plans will not deliver the desired salinity outcomes (despite being duly accredited by the Program). This fact alone will probably be of little threat to them in the short term, but the debate about their role (e.g. Bennett 2004) may have some influence.

Research findings and outcomes

As the recent scientific and economic findings about salinity management become more widely known and accepted, some changes in policy will follow. Investments in salinity prevention will be more carefully targeted and site-specific. A proportion of this targeted investment will not be directed to farmers, and much of it will be spent on engineering works. The "lucky" farmers who continue to receive direct financial support for on-ground works will be those who happen to be: (a) close to assets of high public value; (b) situated on responsive groundwater systems; (c) able to grow suitable perennial-based agricultural production systems that are not too much less profitable than traditional agriculture; and (d) in locations where the capture of fresh surface water by perennial plants does not outweigh the long-term salinity benefits from reducing groundwater recharge.

Current R&D efforts to develop profitable new plant-based systems for salinity management will start to bear fruit. This success will draw in other resources (from both the public and private sectors).

Social trends

Regions within comfortable driving distance of Sydney and especially Melbourne have already seen social and demographic changes resulting from city dwellers purchasing ex-farming land and pursuing their rural dreams. In these regions, traditional commercial agriculture has become less important, occupying a declining proportion of the land, and this trend will continue (Barr, 1999). Different policy approaches will be appropriate for this population of new small-scale land managers than for primarily commercial farmers. What those difference might be has not yet been seriously analysed.

Beyond policy

Changes in the economics of commercial agriculture, timber production and perhaps energy production and use will play major roles in shaping salinity outcomes and, potentially, salinity policy. Changes in technology, climate, markets and rural communities can be expected, and all are relevant to farmers’ responses to salinity and salinity policies.

Concluding comments

Despite the difficulties and tensions discussed here, the prospects for future salinity policy in Australia do not need to be bleak. Scientific and economic findings are given attention by policy makers (among other considerations). The changes in our knowledge of dryland salinity in the last decade have been profound. The new findings and their implications are being widely communicated and debated, and one can reasonably hope that the next national salinity policy will be modified appropriately.

In addition, politics and policy are not the only influences, or even necessarily the main influence, on salinity outcomes. The new scientific knowledge will influence land managers, irrespective of policy. Long-term outcomes in salinity management will be substantially influenced by demographic changes in some regions, and by the results of current R&D to develop profitable new plant-based systems for salinity management. Within agriculture, irrespective of policy, a reasonable balance will eventually be reached between engineering and plant-based approaches to salinity management, and between preventative and adaptive strategies. One hopes that, despite some of the political difficulties, a reformed national salinity policy will contribute significantly to that outcome.


Thanks to Mike Ewing, Richard Price, Garry McDonald, Anna Ridley, David Bennett and Bobbie Brazil for feedback and advice.


Barr, N. (1999). Social aspects of rural natural resource management, in Outlook 99, Proceedings of the National Agricultural and resources Outlook Conference, Canberra, 17-18 March, vol. 1, Commodity Markets and Resource Management, ABARE, Canberra, pp. 133-140.

Bathgate, A. and Pannell, D.J. (2002). Economics of deep-rooted perennials in Western Australia, Agricultural Water Management 53(1): 117-132.

Bennett, D. (2004) Rethinking community-based integrated catchment management. In: Graham, T.W., Pannell, D.J. and White, B. (eds.) Dryland Salinity: Economic Issues at Farm, Catchment and Policy Levels, Cooperative Research Centre for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia, Perth, pp. 207-220.

Howard, J. (2000). Transcript of The Prime Minister, The Hon John Howard MP, Press Conference on Natural Resource Management, Parliament House, Canberra, 10 October 2000, http://www.pm.gov.au/news/interviews/2000/interview475.htm, accessed 21 January 2004.

Kingwell, R., Hajkowicz, S., Young, J., Patton, D., Trapnell, L., Edward, A., Krause, M. and Bathgate, A., (2003). Economic Evaluation of Salinity Management Options in Cropping Regions of Australia, Grains Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.

Pannell, D.J. (2001a). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. Final journal version (212K pdf file) also available via the Journal homepage:  www.blackwellpublishing.com/ajare

Pannell, D.J. (2001b). Salinity policy: A tale of fallacies, misconceptions and hidden assumptions, Agricultural Science 14(1): 35-37.

Ridley, A., Pannell, D.J., Ewing, M.A. and Lefroy, E. (2004). The role of plants and plant-based R&D in the management of dryland salinity in southern Australia, Proceedings, Salinity Solutions, Working with Science and Society, CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, Melbourne.

Revised version published as
Ridley, A., and Pannell, D.J. (2005). The role of plants and plant-based R&D in managing dryland salinity in Australia, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 45: 1341-1355. Full journal paper (127K pdf)

Citation: Pannell, D.J. (2004). Politics and dryland salinity, In: Proceedings, Salinity Solutions: Working with Science and Society, Bendigo, 2-5 August 2004, CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, Perth. http://www.general.uwa.edu.au/u/dpannell/dp0401.htm

Revised version published as
Pannell, D.J. (2005). Farm, food and resource issues: politics and dryland salinity, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture
45: 1471-1480. Full journal paper (103K) Summary version (19K)

This is a summary version of the full paper, which is available here.

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Last revised: June 16, 2013.