15 October 2010

Not getting any better

The government isn't getting any better at thinking through policy, carefully using the public stage (including the media) to build an initial case, and then consulting extensively to come up with a policy solution. The latest debacle over Murray-Darling water is another example of this depressing pattern, where the great issues of our time go begging or are deferred with some half-arsed nonsense.

Unsustainable agriculture depends on government subsidies. Farmers went into rice and cotton and all those other thirsty, low-value products because subsidies made them attractive. Bleat all you will about building your families' lives on the basis of subsidies, but farmers thus affected are no different to anyone else who's been taken in by political promises, or by dodgy investments. Governments cancel projects all the time: infrastructure builders, renewable energy providers and professional domestic insulation installers know this. Get over it, country people. I'm with thinkers from Heinrich Heine to Grog's Gamut in believing that burning printed matter is not on, and that anyone who does so must be deeply wrong and deserves none of the sympathy you might otherwise have felt for their predicament.

Mind you, given recent political history they are right to assume that a sharp blast of anger will cause the pollies to drop high-minded, long-term policy in favour of backflips and handouts.
And the Minister for Water, Tony Burke, promised regional towns the government would use its $9 billion water program - and more if necessary - to maintain a healthy river and healthy regional economies.

The opposition spokesman on the Murray-Darling Basin, Simon Birmingham, said Mr Burke should have attended the regional meetings to deliver his assurance in person.

As the Murray-Darling Basin Authority faces growing fury at meetings to discuss the cuts proposed in the guide released last week, conservationists criticised the body for announcing the cuts without highlighting the finding that two-thirds of the minimum 3000-gigalitre reduction will be achieved by 2014 through programs already in train.
When Birmingham calls out the minister like that, it would be just the Liberals' luck for him to rise to the task and scratch out hard-won respect by going town to town, farm to farm, bringing people not very different to Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area water hogs from the Coorong, as well as various boffins, and building respect and understanding through sheer hard graft. Instead, this is Tony Burke we're talking here, who will try and bore them to death and hope they simply drop away from public debate out of sheer boredom, or are excluded from it by dint of appearing on television in an unattractive way.

It's interesting that Abbott is spending his time trying to dig himself out of his own foxhole over defence issues. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is a construct of the Howard Government, and therefore Abbott won't and can't criticise it. Going by his record he should be in there boots and all behind the farmers, putting the whole Afghanistan thing behind him, and it is suspicious that he isn't.

Yes, suspicious: blatant anti-environmentalism ("absolute crap") had been a key feature of his push to the election but has declined in importance since. Had Abbott gone in hard, shoring up already safe Coalition seats and disdaining potential votes in marginals in a reflexive lunge against the incumbent government, he would have repeated the Minchin-Abetz pattern of the past five years. For a voluble man, his silence is deafening. Maybe has learnt a thing or two, and is letting Labor bear the slings and arrows.
The NSW Irrigators Council said the authority's environmental findings were wrong
Yes well they would say that, wouldn't they. Not news, especially when presented without data.

Maybe he's flagging, and realises he's out of his depth. This issue is bigger than Tony Abbott, though, which is why he isn't handling it. I just wish that there was someone in public life who could, though, or who would die trying.


  1. Maybe he's playing smart. Or maybe he got badly burned form his appearance on Alan Jones and is keeping his head down.

    That he could have such dreadful polling numbers and there still be no real talk of a possible challenger says a fair bit about the current state of the federal Liberal Party.

  2. Maybe Abbott is setting himself up as some sort of conciliator, and doing the sort of extensive consultation a solution would require. I would be interested to see if he could sustain it: frankly, I doubt it.

    If his polling numbers went down after the jetlag comment, imagine how they'll go after the Jones appearance. There's been nothing to make them go back up.

    Within the Liberal Party there's no countervailing pressure against Abbott: Hockey, Turnbull, none of them have the ability to apply pressure let alone knock him off. The key will be that generation of Lib MPs who aren't ready for prime time but are getting there - O'Dwyer, Briggs, Fletcher, Ciobo - and making a case for government. When that happens the case for Abbott will be (as it were) unsustainable.

    While it doesn't say much for the Libs that they elected Abbott in the first place, there is hope that they're not jumping at the first bad polls or that they may recognise that they need to think first, then act.

  3. I have no doubt that Abbott is simply too lazy to take advantage of this situation. As you say, what is required is a protracted and systematic program of consultations and symposiums gathering in ideas and outlining possible solutions attractive to most of the players. That has never been Abbotts forte, it's just too much like hard, boring work.
    However within the coalition there are at least two people who have the interest and drive and qualifications to undertake what is required, Sen Heffernan and Hunt. They could take over the running of this subject and embaras the govt by coming up with a solution. Hunt could also put himself at the forefront of a move to become leader. What more encouragement does he need?

  4. You might not have a name, but you're dead right about Hunt. Birmingham gets big raps but hopefully we'll see something more from him than needling.

    Personally, I think that Broken Hill and the western bank of the Darling should be handed over to SA to give them greater control for their stake.