There's a Hole in the Bucket …


The Howard Government will go down as the most cashed up, careless and callous Australian government since Federation. Howard’s late-onset realisation that water reform, the drought and climate change were first-order priorities is a case in point.

Such as it is, Howard owes his reputation as a smart operator to his quick response to political problems. But his responses and the form they take are always poll-driven with solutions constructed and packaged to allow for maximum spin, and designed for immediate effect.



This is the way policy has been cobbled together for the past 10 years. The media and Opposition have gone along with this ‘method’ of governance in the belief that it’s what the people wanted or at least were prepared to accept.

But cunning and mendacity should not be mistaken for an intellect with depth and substance. Howard is not smart he has shown this repeatedly with references to his great friendship with George Bush and his defence of Bush’s policies including those relating to climate. That he has managed to survive this long is due to a less than average opposition and a media that’s accepted obfuscation and spin coupled over facts.

Parliamentary Secretary Malcolm Turnbull is Howard’s man on water. (Senator Bill Heffernan would like to be, but even Howard sees the rogue elephant within.) Like all those with ambition, Turnbull has had to dumb down to work with Howard. With Turnbull as his mouthpiece, Howard has decided to spin the issue and by spinning he has accepted ownership.

Following the Water Summit on 7 November, Howard appointed a group of public servants to report to him on solutions to the increasingly dry argument on water flows in the Murray/Darling. Pity them if they can’t make it rain on past form, if they don’t deliver Howard will throw them to the lions.

There are no quick fixes to a problem that has been staring Howard in the face since he became Prime Minister in 1996. As the problem gets worse, he will take increasing criticism. This will have an electoral impact and will not advance Turnbull’s ambitions either.

Turnbull looks and sounds silly coming up with poorly researched and ill thought through proposals every second day.  Such an approach to policy formation demonstrates a lack of judgment and contempt for the electorate.

The twin issues of water and climate change are held to be too important by too many people in Australia for Howard and Turnbull to get away with crude and superficial spin. Electors are angry that Howard has had plenty of time to focus on these issues and put in place mechanisms to address them. A Newspoll  in early November found 86 per cent of Australians believed the Government should be doing more to address climate change, and a poll commissioned by the Lowy Institute  in October had similar findings.

If Howard doesn’t handle this issue openly, honestly, and with commonsense he will cop it from voters and historians alike.

Thanks to Scratch

Given the pressing need to address the distribution, allocation and conservation of water, a smart move by Howard and Turnbull would be to take water (and climate change) out of the political arena by establishing a well-resourced independent national authority to do the research and science, and give all of us advice on sustainable best practice.

I stood as an Independent against the National Party’s John Anderson in the elections of 2001 and 2004. In both campaigns I raised the urgency of addressing the issue of water. In October 2001 I said:

Government policies in relation to water are ad hoc and bogged down in the duck shoving between State and Federal Governments Water and water usage is a national issue and should be addressed as such. There is a need for a National Water Authority The issue of water has the potential to become the single biggest domestic issue over the next 50 years unless it is seriously and comprehensively addressed on a national basis.

Anderson scoffed, and referred to the proposal to establish a National Water Authority as a socialist idea. No one in the Government or Opposition picked up on the issue during either election campaign.

Howard has been an acquirer of power and influence but with this issue there are no political points in owning it. As hard as it may be for him, Howard must let go. It is an issue which cannot be spun or solved politically.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.