The real lesson is that needed water policy change is going to be hard-fought
"To drink or not to drink recycled water" was indeed the question that Toowoomba residents were asked to vote on recently in one of the first referendums on this emerging issue.
With more than 60 per cent of the Toowoomba electorate rejecting the proposal, the result is a resounding "no" to what many consider is the major solution to Australia's water crisis.
The referendum's failure sends ripples of warning to decision-makers across Australia about how to manage major policy change and not to take the electorate for granted.
Locally, Mayor Di Thorley who bravely, if ineptly, supported the recycled water proposal, has lost considerable credibility and has a difficult future.
For other local governments across Australia, the results will dampen, if not hose down completely, any enthusiasm to pursue similar recycling changes. Local government, the least reformist of our three levels of government, will now be even less willing to initiate change in this area.
For the Queensland Government, "ear trumpet" Premier Peter Beattie has heard the results loud and clear and has promised there will be no new water recycling in southeast Queensland unless approved by a referendum. While the referendum promises, at least for the recycling issue, greater electorate input into decision-making, it could also lead to policy paralysis and affect developments in Queensland and other states.
How is this issue now going to be managed in Goulburn, where the water crisis is even worse?
There are also implications for the Coalition parties. Disappointingly, all the Coalition state and federal members and candidates in Toowoomba played the short-term political card and opposed or remained silent on the referendum. By so doing, they undermined federal Coalition policy on this area recently announced by Prime Minister John Howard that recycling was an appropriate policy response to Australia's water crisis.
Further tensions inside the Coalition parties can be expected as this issue is played out elsewhere.
While the referendum result may be seen as a rejection of expert advice and rational decision-making, advocates of water reform such as federal parliamentary secretary for water Malcolm Turnbull should not arrogantly dismiss Toowoomba voters and the emotionalism that surrounds the issue.
Rather, the real lesson about the referendum is that needed water policy change is going to be hard-fought. It needs the same level of commitment, strategic thinking and tactics that underpinned earlier reforms on financial deregulation, tariffs and industrial relations.
Water reform is a cutting-edge national policy issue. Such major policy shifts necessitate politicians to develop consensus and trust about proposed changes. Top-down decision-making is fine in setting overall direction, and expert advice is essential for informing the debate, but ultimately in a democracy, local people must be on board for successful implementation.
Although it was Turnbull's refusal to provide $23 million to Toowoomba for recycling unless a referendum was held, he failed to manage the issue effectively. Local Coalition members were not aligned, advocacy was weak and ambiguous and attention sporadic.
Turnbull should have known better, given his experience in the failed 1999 republican referendum. Aspiring leaders wanting to climb the greasy pole of power need a firm grip on local sensitivities, co-ordination and clear tactics. These were clearly absent during the referendum campaign. Howard knows what has to be done to achieve policy change, but some of his new junior ministers have yet to understand that government is more complicated than business and that local opinions count.
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