John Howard has an amazing capacity to be sanguine about long-term weather predictions of world-wide rising temperatures. But yesterday it was a different story when he spoke of the dire circumstances facing the irrigation regions of south-eastern Australia if the short-term prediction of a 50:50 chance of above-or-below-average rainfall over the next month turns out on the below side.

While some world leaders worry their people with fears of melting ice caps flooding coastal cities and disappearing islands, our Prime Minister’s concern doesn’t go past “the critical situation that we face if there is no significant rainfall over the next few weeks.”

Mr Howard showed at his press conference called yesterday to advise on the outcome of the contingency planning report on water availability in the Murray-Darling Basin that was requested at the Melbourne Cup Day meeting with premiers last year that he is still not comfortable talking about the broader issue of global warming. This was his response to the solitary question he was asked about climate change:

Journalist: On the issue of climate change, you have said before the jury is out on the link between climate change and this current drought. Aren’t people going to jump on this and say, well, this is looking very much like something extraordinary and perhaps it is climate change taking effect?

Prime Minister: Well, we’ve had droughts before. We’ve had very severe droughts before, but we had smaller populations and we had lesser demand. Look, I recognise the ongoing debate about the link between the two things and I don’t vary from that. I don’t think this dramatically alters it. I mean we’re practical people, we Australians, we’ve got to deal with a situation and I would have thought what people ought to do is focus on what we can do to make sure that the available water does, is used efficiently to meet the needs of town communities. And I think in planning for the future we’ve got to see it as a national challenge to be dealt with at a national level.

With his Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Malcolm Turnbull, beside him, Mr Howard did not want to be diverted from the message of his report that “unless there are very substantial inflows, and for that read heavy rain, leading to run-off into the catchment areas, prior to mid-May 2007, there will be insufficient water available to allow any allocation at the commencement of the 2007-2008 water year for irrigation, the environment or for any purposes other than critical urban supplies”.

His words were designed to produce a headline and they certainly achieved just that, but what he said was hardly new. The Murray-Darling Commission in its monthly drought reports has been saying the same thing for a couple of months. The April update , also released yesterday but not referred to by the PM or his Environment Minister, reported that “recent announcements by relevant state water agencies have indicated that opening irrigation allocations for the River Murray for 2007/08 would be zero unless there is a significant change in inflow conditions before the start of the irrigation season”.

Perhaps the real reason for the Prime Minister’s sombre assessment was not to tell irrigators something they already knew, but an attempt to regain some momentum for his stalled plan for the Commonwealth to take over control of the whole Murray-Darling system. Not that Victoria has shown any sign of being influenced. Victorian Water Minister John Thwaites said this morning the state will not agree and accused the Commonwealth of playing politics.

Part of the politics is to try to avoid being the government blamed should the Murray really stop flowing in this election year for, despite the tone of Mr Howard’s announcement yesterday, it is the state governments not the Commonwealth that actually will make the decisions about who can take how much water from the rivers this year. It was this reality that was the reason for the seemingly cryptic sentences in yesterday’s prime ministerial press release:

Our experts are meeting to put in place contingency plans to ensure MDB communities have a critical minimum water supply and to examine other measures to assist irrigators. If some states were to exercise their rights under the current Murray-Darling agreement, communities in those regions may not have access to critical water supplies. I have written to the premiers seeking their cooperation to ensure this does not happen and I expect no difficulty with this approach.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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