Calling Victorian Premier Steve Bracks a two faced liar is the interesting tactic Prime Minister John Howard is now using to try and get Victoria to hand over constitutional powers that would allow the Commonwealth Government to control the Murray Darling river system.

In an interview on Radio National this morning, Mr Howard accused Mr Bracks of telling him one thing in private and then going out and saying the opposite in public. What is so extraordinary is that the attack on his integrity will surely make it very difficult for Mr Bracks to back down on his government’s refusal to agree to Mr Howard’s so-called $10 billion plan.

Squabbles between a Prime Minister and a Premier are nothing new under Australia’s federal system. They occur almost every time there is a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. What is unusual is the decision by Mr Howard to publicly reveal details of claimed conversations that even he says were held in private.

The Prime Minister was asked by Fran Kelly on RN how, with Victoria refusing to budge, he was going to break the impasse. “You say that the Victorian Government won’t budge.”

Mr Howard responded, “That wasn’t what Mr Bracks told me the last time we discussed this matter. I am sorry to have to say that Mr Bracks is playing something of a double game. When he has private conversations with me he indicates that the Victorian Government is reconsidering its position. And yet he goes out and says something different.”

Later in the interview Mr Howard claimed Mr Bracks told him he was “looking at coming on board” and to “give him a bit more time … This is a silly kind of game.”

Silly or not it is a game where the Prime Minister’s prestige will suffer greatly should he not win and his obvious exasperation suggests he knows it; the pressure of appearing politically impotent is getting to him.

Undermining the tough stance of the Prime Minister is the original public position taken by the Environment and Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the agreement of Victoria was not actually necessary for the Commonwealth management plan to proceed although that would result in Victorian irrigators missing out on the benefits of the Commonwealth expenditure.

What Mr Howard told Mr Turnbull in private before Mr Turnbull revised his view to agree with Mr Howard that it was essential for Victoria to come on board has not yet been disclosed.