The first thing you learn about the water in Australia is that you shouldn’t launch yourself in without taking a careful look around for hidden hazards.

It seems that the PM is now learning this lesson after diving headlong into the complex issue of water resource allocation in the Murray Darling Basin.

Wading into the problem in a big way was the right thing to do – we have been getting nowhere in a hurry on solving the problem of over-allocation, the drought and climate change has made it all the more pressing. The PM has needed to do something to try and stop climate change from translating into regime change later this year.

Offering a massive $10 billion and making it contingent on the states signing away control over water was a classic Howard wedge – the states would be damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, and there was the real prospect that they might argue all the way through to the election without a dollar having to be spent.

However, the thing that is now hurting the government is their own arrogance in believing that a few insiders could pull a few chosen experts together for a couple of weeks in January and come up with a comprehensive plan that would solve the problem.

Warning bells should have gone off in cabinet when Morris Iemma was quick to agree to a hand over. Water rights in NSW are a basket case, and clawing back the massive over-allocation will be politically painful.

The biggest problems they face are political and structural ones – things that buckets of money alone will not solve unless backed up by the political willingness to make the hard decisions … which in this case means tackling the Nats on rural subsidies and achieving a sustainable balance between environmental needs and the viability of rural communities who depend on the irrigation industry.

This is not an intractable problem. It is possible to restore health to our rivers, secure the water supplies to our towns and cities, and still sustain our agricultural industries and rural communities. The major challenge is that short-term political pressures will always get in the way – which is why the Greens began advocating last year (well before the PM’s announcement) for an independent statutory authority along the lines advocated by Professor Mike Young.

Quite simply, enough thought hasn’t gone into the PM’s planning. Senate Estimates last night showed the government struggling to justify the figures they seem to have pulled out of the air for efficiency gains and likely returns to environmental flows.

Peter Fray

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