John Howard provided a leadership legacy on national land and policy and planning, but in the last 10 years state and federal governments have offered little more than short-term knee-jerk reactions. In 2007, John Howard said that we need to clean up overallocation, make the irrigation system more sustainable and efficient and end squabbling over the Murray-Darling Basin.

For over a quarter of a century, Australia was at the forefront of progressive water reform. No longer! Where is the wisdom we need to live humbly and gratefully in this country? Letting the market rip without sound governance, regulation and effective policing is resulting in water-trading benefits accruing to the wealthy few, to the detriment of the many in the Murray-Darling Basin. This is a matter of justice, not money.

Firstly, we need an audit. According to the Wentworth Group of eminent scientists, satellite imaging of flood plain harvesting across the tributaries of the Darling shows it’s very much larger than officially recognised. We need measurement, not uncalibrated modelling. This is an urgent priority. Secondly, we need effective governance to re-establish functions previously provided by the National Water Commission and the COAG Standing Committee on Environment and Water. This is vital. Thirdly, we need to include Indigenous leaders—their water rights and values regarding water.

The whole system needs honest auditing. We need policy based on facts, not self-interest or corruption. Or are we afraid of what an honest audit of the health of our rivers may show?