When Prime Minister Howard said yesterday that Murray-Darling Basin irrigators in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia will be denied water allocations this year if the crippling drought continues, was he signaling that the Commonwealth – strengthened by the High Court’s decision in the Corporations Power case last November – will seek to remove control of our water resources from the states?
At present, despite Mr Howard’s words at his media conference yesterday, the Commonwealth has no power to make decisions about water allocations – it is a matter for state governments.
Why would Mr Howard want the Commonwealth to assume regulation of water? No doubt the prospect of the Commonwealth having to deal with recalcitrant states like Victoria, which is currently refusing to sign up to the $10 billion National Security Water Plan, might be one compelling reason.
And how might such a constitutional shift be achieved? Easily, one would have thought, given the High Court’s decision in the challenge to the Howard government’s industrial relations laws last year, which effectively allows the Commonwealth to regulate any aspect of life as we know it in Australia, through the use of the Corporations Power in the Constitution.
Over the past two decades water companies, both government and privately owned, have come to dominate the scene in the Murray-Darling Basin and in other areas. This is why the Commonwealth, in these post-Corporations Power case days, could cut the states out of this politically sensitive area of life.
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It’s an intriguing prospect and one that cannot be ruled out, given Mr Howard’s undoubted centralist tendencies and the High Court’s sympathy with that view of the world.
When the Corporations Power decision was handed down last November there was a flurry of reporting and commentary about the fact that areas of life which, until now had been considered State responsibilities, such as schools and hospitals, could be taken over by the Commonwealth. Perhaps water will the first cab off the rank? Maybe Mr Howard will seek to grab control of all the nation’s dams and rivers?
If yesterday’s media conference was any indication, it sure as hell sounded like the Howard government had already assumed control of the nation’s water resources.