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water woes: to the High Court? « Previous | |Next »
July 25, 2007

I see that John Howard will use constitutional powers over corporations, external affairs and interstate trade and commerce powers to enforce commonwealth government control over water in the Murray-Darling Basin to solve its problems.

I must admit to being surprised by what has happened with the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. Good bye co-operative federalism, hello Canberra takeover. Is this a case of electoral politics overriding good policy? Is Steve Bracks just defending the water licences of the Victorian irrigators? Just what are the key areas of concern between the Commonwealth and Victoria?

Bill Leak

I'm also ambivalent. It is a national issue and so Canberra should be centrally involved and call the shots, as the states have made a mess of things with their overallocation of water to foster regional development and refused to address the issue. But the states also have control of water, as stated in the Constitution, and so they should also be involved, as Victoria insists.

The constitution does not grant express power to the Commonwealth over rivers or systems such as the Murray-Darling. This is one reason the Howard Government has spent months trying to entice the states to cede their powers in return for a $10 billion investment.

So why do the states need to refer all their powers to Canberra? As we know from Kevin Henry, the Treasury Secretary, that Howard's $10 billion Murray-Darling rescue plan was poorly designed and done on the back of an envelop.

Howard is blaming the states as usual (election politics) when the real obstacle up to water is the Nationals who oppose any reduction in the over-allocated water licences and refuse to acknowledge the effects of climate change on the Basin---reduced basin stream flows by 20 and 40 per cent by 2030. Yet the indications are that in some of the southern catchments in the Murray-Darling Basin we are getting close to the predictions for 2030 under climate change. That spells the end of the expansion of irrigated agriculture.

The new commonwealth plan centralises water management, includes the setting or overall caps on water use, funding to buy back over-allocated water ad funding to increase the efficiency of irrigation. It will develop salinity plans and accredit individual water plans in catchments. The Commonwealth will not be able to get involved in in individual water river operations or seasonal allocations of water.

Are we now headed for the High Court? Section 100 of the constitution says:

"The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a state or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation."

This applies only to the trade and commerce power, and it just protects "reasonable" use of the waters. That leaves the corporations power. So what will the big irrigators do?

Update: 26 the July
I see that centralists are arguing that the real problem is our federal system of governance.Thus George Williams in the Age says:

The underlying problem is Australia's dysfunctional federal system of government. Our 1901 constitution fails to set out clear responsibility for the Murray-Darling and other waterways. While the management of a river system that crosses state borders should be a matter for federal government, the constitution fails to say this.

This ignores the resistance politics of the irrigation industry supported by the Nationals. The National Party attack good science as it opposes a mass compulsory buy-back of irrigators' licences that could devastate farming towns. Climate change may well achieve that.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:49 PM | | Comments (1)


i would say the constitution is clear, howard can not take over the river system.

but he may, as the constitution is nearly toothless. i vaguely understand how the sheep get along in a potemkin society, but the ability of educated ozzies to swallow the absurdities of their children's playhouse is hard for this new ozzie.