Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

A damning response to Howards Big Splash

Talk about climate change. In Australia at least, the pace is really hotting up.

Just a fortnight ago I was talking admiringly about John Howards Great Big Splash, the $10 billion inundation that would sweep all before it, leaving his political opponents with no option except to climb aboard the Dear Leaders personal rescue craft. But suddenly the water revolution is all but down the gurgler and it is Howard sitting stranded in the bathtub asking his rubber duckie, Malcolm Turnbull, why he forgot to put the plug in.

I noted at the time that the great Big Splash was not a cure-all for the countrys water woes, but I thought it would at least hold up politically; that the scale and audacity of the exercise would be enough to sell it to an anxious public. But instead, its precisely these qualities that have brought it undone.

The problems began early when it became clear that the $10 billion figure had simply been plucked out of the air without consultation from either the Treasury or the Department of Finance: it was a nice big round number which would look terrific in the headlines but came without any serious consideration of how it would be spent. Even so, the chair of the old Murray-Darling Commission, Wendy Craik, pronounced it a billion short, a criticism she quickly withdrew after Howard called her into his soundproof office.

The doubts remained; but what was quickly apparent was that whatever the figure was or should be, not one cent of it was going to the very large majority of Australians who do not live in the bush. With the exception of Adelaide, whose water supply depends largely on the Murray, the cities missed out, and it was no great comfort to them to be told that they had already had their cut a $2 million water fund which had so far produced exactly nothing because it was blocked by the usual wrangling between federal and state bureaucrats.

Because of the lack of detail there was some confusion as to whether the whole lot would be spent in the Murray-Darling basin or whether there would be a bit left over to spread around other rural marginals in need of a pre-election handout, but there was no doubt at all that some 85 per cent of the population would miss out.

However, the ones who were lucky enough to be standing under the cloudburst would do very well indeed. Some $3 billion was going to the irrigators to improve the efficiency of their delivery, mainly through better water conservation. It could be asked why, if this money was to be effective in increasing the irrigators productivity, and therefore their profits, the irrigators hadnt already made the investment themselves; after all, they were the ones who stood to gain.

And indeed, their gain could well be everyone elses loss. One obvious improvement would be to line the irrigation canals to minimise water loss through seepage except that it is this seepage which keeps the water table filled up for those not rich enough to build canals.

And not only do the irrigators receive this bonanza, but, unlike the rest of us, they still dont have to pay for their water. Truly, this is agrarian socialism, the code of those rugged individualists who run the National Party, at its finest.

But even if the irrigators dont have to pay for their water, they will now be able to sell the rights to it. This is where a lot of the remaining money is to go: the hope in fact the expectation is that a lot of irrigators will decide that it is all too hard, too risky, not profitable enough and will sell out. One willing customer will be the federal government and the water it buys will be returned to the river to increase the flow downstream, hopefully all the way to the Coorong.

But what, you might ask, if the irrigators, revelling in the new toys the taxpayers have bought them (or at least promised to buy them), dont want to sell? Will the government resort to compulsory acquisition? Never, scream the National Partys agrarian socialists. Well, hardly ever, responds Malcolm Turnbull. Surely there wont be any need. No, we can say there will be no acquisition. Well, not unless it proves to be absolutely necessary

And these were only the most public of the disputes. We dont know what happened at the latest water summit on Thursday, but we do know that the only one of the six premiers prepared to sign up was Morris Iemma, who doesnt want a fight on the eve of the NSW state election, and even he has reservations. Mike Rann, with South Australia hugely dependent on the Murray, is unwilling to allow Canberra total control; he wants an independent commission. Peter Beattie from Queensland and Steve Bracks from Victoria want guarantees that their states will not lose out.

And now, displaying a hide that even John Howard must envy, into the schemozzle steps Kevin Rudd, offering to roll up his sleeves and mediate; after all, he proclaims solemnly, the issue is too important to allow politics to get in the way. If he can find a solution in the national interest, then it is his duty to do so. And if he drains the last drops of the Great Big Splash out of Howards pool and uses them to anoint himself as the Great Healer in the process, well, so be it.

Some things are just inevitable, like climate change.

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