River

In the spotlight: with Peter Gibson

Wednesday 19 August, 2009
Peter Gibson

Shepparton Irrigation Region Implementation Committee put 10 questions to the Chairperson of the SIRIC about catchment management and his commitment to making a difference.

  1. The plan (the Catchment Implementation Strategy) was originally based on solving problems caused by too much water. How relevant is it now, in this period of prolonged drought?

    PG: The salinity problem hasn't gone away. It may not be obvious but it is still a huge issue for us. The Victorian Government has just finished reviewing drainage programs statewide and this will be available shortly. Our Strategy was probably ahead of its time because, while high watertables and drainage were priorities 10-20 years ago, the Strategy also set up policies and systems to manage all ‘natural resources'. The prolonged dry period and the drought has brought into the spotlight how robust the strategy is, and how it can keep pace with the changing priorities faced by the catchment community.
  2. What is it about this plan that makes it so successful?

    PG: This is going to sound soppy, but I think it is definitely the people involved and the love they show, that make this plan and the processes, work. It is the people on the committees and working groups, the people who work for the regional departments and the people who manage the farms. It is a fantastic network that should never be taken for granted.
  3. What is there to show for the millions of dollars invested so far and how has this set up the Strategy for the future?

    PG: On ground assistance to the regional community to improve irrigation layout across 187,000ha, construct 616kms of improved surface drainage, install over 400 groundwater pumps, and thousands of drainage re-use systems, as well as participate in landcare related activities. This investment has not only led to physical improvements towards the sustainability of farming in the region. This investment of time and money has also built an intrinsic level of community confidence in the process and in the region. Because of this confidence, the strategy is very well placed to achieve the vision of ‘social, environmental and agricultural sustainability'.
  4. What area of investment has been the most successful or surprising?

    PG: The area that has been most surprising has been the ability of irrigators and the farming community to continue to invest in their properties and their future despite drought, water shortages, dismal markets. On top of this is the roll-out of ‘modernisation' of regional irrigation infrastructure. I think the farming community is going through some heavy times and people are making tough decisions - if I could I'd shake the hand of each and every one of them.
  5. "Adaptive management" or "policy on the run"? How does the Catchment Implementation Strategy measure up?

    PG: I'm very confident that our committee applies an ‘adaptive management' approach. In an ideal world we could sit back, do nothing and wait for years for conclusive research results to ttnd the perfect solutions. But this is not an ideal world. Our catchment and our community are struggling under various negative impacts affecting agricultural and environmental health. What we do is assess the indicative results, discuss options with experts, and thoroughly debate the issues through our landholder and community based consultation processes. Policies are then developed and strategies and actions put in place. Our monitoring processes are world class and we are able to review and adapt in light of new information. No sir, this is far from a ‘policy on the run' organisation.
  6. You mention ‘community consultation'. ‘Community consultation' and "local input into decision-making" aren't these just other ways of saying "we'll tell you what we're going to do"?

    PG: There is no way our policies and decisions could get any traction if they didn't have the full acceptance of the community. Our consultation processes are embedded at every level. Our ‘community representatives' on working groups and committees make very sure that they are representing their communities when they attend and have input.
  7. Adapting Government policy, and working with a ‘consensus-model' can often be painfully slow. Atier 10 years on committees and now your 5th year as chairperson, what keeps you coming back?

    PG: I keep coming back because I believe this is the best way to make a difference. Yes, the process can be slow but it is thorough enough that the decisions that are eventually made are all ‘gold plated'. There is no dissatisfied element. If people don't feel they've had the chance to be engaged in the process then it doesn't matter how ‘right' the decisions are, they won't be supported in the long term. I also enjoy being involved with the emerging science and being able to hear about innovative farming.
  8. You are known as a bit of ‘song smith' and have entertained people with your many musical instruments, and witty observations. Who is your inspiration/favourite song/song writer?

    PG: Inspiration: My Father and Mother. Favourite song: Any song from Les Miserable. Favourite song writer: Don McLean.
  9. Who would you invite to dinner?

    PG: Peter "Pete" Seeger (born May 3, 1919) He had a string of hit records during the early ‘50s as a member of The Weavers, with Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene". He is a pioneer of protest music in support of civil rights and environmental causes. As a song writer, he is best known as the author or co-author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!".
  10. $20 Question: Assuming that it rains in September, "who would you turn hay for?"

    PG: Anyone, as long as they pay me in the stuff because it's been tricky to get any to grow these last few years!