As Crikey editorialised yesterday, Peter Beattie has belatedly grasped the nettle of governing as opposed to playing politics over water by dumping the recycled water plebiscite.

Much commentary last week over Howard’s Murray-Darling plan revolved around his supposed snookering of Rudd – oppositions can talk, but governments can decide, pundits opined.

But of greater interest is the way Howard intends to use Beattie’s decision on recycled water to wedge Rudd.

Rudd has made much of the appeal that co-operative federalism can bring to his agenda. Rather than blame the states, the Opposition Leader argues, he would work with them. But state politics are hardly examples of pure evidence based policy.

Morris Iemma, in particular, is stumbling his way towards re-election by avoiding any risky political choices. Hence his ruling out both of water restrictions on the NSW Central Coast last year and his opposition to recycled water this week. Recent Queensland experience shows there is little electoral danger, and much benefit, in both, but Iemma is running scared.

Howard’s pointed endorsement of Beattie’s decision draws the contrast between the two state leaders in stark terms, and challenges Rudd to pick and choose. If he comes down on Iemma’s side, Rudd lays himself open to a Howard drawn contrast with Beattie’s responsibility on water issues.

The sleeper issue is the Traveston Dam on the Mary River in Queensland. Rudd has so far avoided taking a position on whether it should go ahead. Despite some Labor Senators’ support for an inquiry into the controversial project, Rudd has been sidestepping the question. 

There’s a wedge in the making here for Howard.

And it’s hard to see how Rudd can avoid the trap. Support for an inquiry will be seen as a repudiation of Beattie’s decision to build Traveston. It might help federal Labor with Green preferences, but if Howard were to back Beattie, it could also paint Rudd as opportunistic.

Queenslanders, whom federal Labor needs to win over, aren’t in any mood to see water infrastructure as a political plaything – not with the Wivenhoe dam predicted to decline to a sludgy 5% of capacity in 2008.

After all, state governments can make decisions too. Rudd faces a fine line to walk the talk along with them. But it’s a trap of his own making, if Howard decides to exploit it further.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey