Australia’s federal government has another go at State water

And to think, I only just got through talking about the last time the federal government tried to snatch control of a state’s water. Today’s news is that the Prime Minister has had enough of waiting for Victoria to play with all of the other states, and hand over control of the Murray-Darling and the Great Artesian Basins

The Howard Government will exercise its special powers to seize control of the Murray-Darling Basin from the states following the final refusal yesterday of Victoria to give up its hold over the dying river system.

Mr Howard said: “I am not willing to have a three-legged horse which is what we would have been left with. The Australian people are fed up with state parochialism. The river system doesn’t care about the border between Victoria and NSW and I don’t care.”

Victoria was the only state holding out. Now the Howard Government will use constitutional powers, already agreed by federal cabinet, to get its way.

These include the external affairs powers that the Hawke government used to stop the Franklin Dam in 1983. Australia is signatory to an international treaty on biodiversity and wetlands management which empowers it to act in their interest. This will be used to set environmental flows for the Murray.

The Government will also rely on interstate trade and commerce powers to assume authority for setting extraction caps along the river system and managing water trading. The Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, said last night he would challenge the laws in the High Court. “I don’t believe that they will get a hearing because water and land management is enshrined in the constitution as a state responsibility,” he said.

“State parochialism” is of course the Prime Minister’s characterisation of constitutional powers given to the states and not to the federal government upon federation. Of the basin-relevant states, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory (not a state), Victoria is the only hold-out. It argues that states ought not cede complete control of water allocations in return for infrastructure funding. It is also planning to take the federal government to court over the legislation, much like Hawke’s legislation for the Franklin River ended up in court.

At issue, on one hand, is AUD10bn in funding for infrastructure, plus a mass buy-back of water allocations by the federal government. The ceding of referral powers comes in because the Prime Minister has argued that the root cause is over-allocation by state governments – they can’t use their powers properly, so they shan’t be allowed to have any.

Politically, it is more interesting. It is all well and good for the Prime Minister to claim that state premiers (meaning one of them) are playing electoral politics. It is the Prime Minister, however, who has run out of patience with Victoria, who were negotiating between the Prime Minister’s plan and one of their own, involving less-than-complete loss of referral power. It is also the Prime Minister who has argued already that a federal Labor victory on election day would leave the country trapped in wall-to-wall Labor governments, and inevitable catastrophe.

This move, then, brings a fight that may – or may not – have occurred organically, and at a later date, to now. Now being before the election. I’m not saying the Prime Minister is wrong, actually – state allocation of public, and scarce, water to farmers who show very little skill at husbandry of it, is atrocious. But a fight with Labor governments bring forth an opportunity to score political points at their expense. Especially in Victoria. The Prime Minister can appeal to the farmers who want the water, saying Premier Bracks, and the Labor party, blew their deal. He can appeal to households saying the Premier first gave water away to farmers, and then blew their deal. He can appeal to NSW, upstream, and South Australia, downstream, with the same argument.

How quickly will this happen? How about the same day:

Mr Howard said Victoria was typical of a “double game” played by the Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, and Labor premiers. Mr Rudd gave in-principle support to the original water plan, the detention of Dr Mohamed Haneef, and action on Aboriginal communities, while premiers have attacked elements of these measures.

“Mr Rudd is painfully, almost, trying not to be any different from me … yet he’s got his mates out there running interference.”

I would point out that “in-principle” support means attacking some elements – exactly what state Labor parties have been doing. Shame the Sydney Morning Herald did not feel inclined to do the same.

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