Water is the only subject covered in the Crikey Morgan Poll that provides the PM with some succour – 67% of Bennelong voters say the federal Government should take control of water resources. If only implementing it was so easy.

We now know that the PM didn’t take his water plan to Cabinet. He’s got away with this before. He did exactly the same thing with the Alice Springs to Darwin Railway. Max Moore-Wilton told him it was uneconomic and the only way it could be built would be if he pre-empted Cabinet discussion and just announced it.

That, of course, was easier. It only involved South Australia and the Northern Territory – and they’re both appendages of our body politic. They weren’t going to say no to a handout.

It’s a tactic straight out of the manual – Yes Minister, series one, episode four — where the Prime Minister unilaterally announces a new policy on TV. The book has the detail:

Sir Bernard Woolley Recalls:

Jim Hacker always gave me credit for this brilliant ploy because of the unintentional double meaning of my remark to him — “It’s been announced, it’s in the programme.” However, I personally believe that Hacker was inspired by Edward Heath’s famous manoeuvre when he wanted — in the teeth of Civil Service opposition — to announce a new £10 Christmas bonus for the Old Age Pensioners. After many weeks of obstruction within Number 10 he simply appeared on Panorama and announced it as a fait accompli. It happened late, but it happened.

I remember Sir Humphrey Appleby’s face was a picture when Jim made his statement — especially at the moment when he said that his Permanent Secretary had staked his reputation on it…

If only life was so simple for our Jim Hacker. He has more layers of government to deal with – and a clock that’s ticking fast.

The PM wants a decision at this Friday’s meeting. If it doesn’t happen this week, the issue will remain unresolved for a month. The NSW Parliament will be dissolved on Friday week – 2 March – and under the caretaker conventions, the Iemma government won’t be allowed to sign up to a deal.

All the states need to do is stall for another week to ensure the PM’s water torture will rag on until after March 24.

Peter Fray

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