There is a danger for Labor Leader Kevin Rudd that his gimmick of having what he is calling a climate change summit will end up being one of those things that seemed to be a good idea at the time.

To put it somewhat crudely, Rudd is at risk of being seen as a smart arse – a politician being too clever by half.

While John Howard is delivering an actual policy to deal with at least part of the country’s water problem through his meeting of state premiers to arrange a federal takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin, Mr Rudd will be engaging in a talk-fest. Actions will surely create a better political outcome than words.

The motivation for Rudd’s summit is understandable enough. He is trying to overcome the advantages that being able to actually do things gives to an incumbent government.

Yet by settling on the need for a discussion to determine a broader strategy than that of Howard, Rudd is being left open to attack on the grounds that it shows how hamstrung a future Federal Labor Government would by the need to appease the eight state and territory governments.

This will continue the amazing reversal of a dominant theme of 50 years of federalism where the Liberals portrayed themselves as the protectors of states rights while Labor argued for the efficiency and common sense of a national approach to solve national problems. John Howard has turned federalist on many issues while his opponents have become increasingly constrained by their office holding party colleagues.

Water looks like proving no different as the initial enthusiasm of most Premiers to ceding power over the Murray-Darling to Canberra weakens as every day passes. How the Prime Minister must be hoping that the Premiers will force him to play the role of the strong man acting in the national interest by forcing him to legislate to get his way against their wishes.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie gave an indication of the way Premiers think yesterday when he suggested that the Commonwealth Government give funding to each and every state and territory government for a major water project of their own choosing.

The Beattie argument that “we’ve got to put water infrastructure in to look after where people live” was echoed by Rudd’s criticism of the Howard plan for not containing anything for the 17 million Australians who do not live along the Murray-Darling Basin.

Peter Fray

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