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Howard is failing the nation on water policy

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 8 January 2007

It is likely that with the passage of time the Howard Government will be regarded as the most cashed up, yet careless and incompetent government since federation.

For anyone who has it in for John Howard his response to water reform and climate change has been a godsend.

Such as it is, Howard owes his reputation as a smart political operator to quick responses to political problems. The response and the form it takes are poll driven. Solutions have been constructed and packaged to allow maximum spin: they are designed for immediate effect.


This is the way policy has been cobbled together for the past ten years. The media and opposition have gone along with this flawed method of governance. Long term vision and wisdom have been marginalised by fear of the poll.

Turnbull is Howard’s man on water. Heffernan would like to be but even Howard sees through him. Those with ambition that work with Howard have to dumb down: Turnbull is no exception. Without foreseeing the consequences Howard has grabbed ownership of water and with Turnbull as his mouthpiece has decided to spin the issue.

As the problem gets worse they will take increasing criticism. This will have an electoral impact and will not advance Howard’s standing or Turnbull’s ambitions.

Following the water summit on November 7 Howard appointed a group of public servants to report to him on solutions to the increasingly dry argument of 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.

A smart move by Howard would be to take water (and climate change) out of the political arena and establish a well resourced organisation that he, and the rest of the country, can take advice from.


But Howard is not smart. He has reinforced this time and again with references to his great friendship with George Bush and his acceptance and defence of Bush’s policies including those relating to climate.

His cunning and mendacity should not be mistaken as an intellect of depth and substance. Due to a less than average opposition and media he has been able to get away with outrageous spin coupled to a dearth of facts.

The issue of water, coupled as it is to climate change, is held to be important by too many Australians for Howard and Turnbull to get away with crude and superficial spin. Electors are angry, Howard has had plenty of time to focus on the issue and put in place mechanisms to address the need for sustainable water supplies.

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First published in the Canberra Times on December 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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