10/10/2006 - 22:00

Bureaucratic empire expanding

10/10/2006 - 22:00


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Cast your mind back to 2001 - the last time Kim Beazley challenged John Howard for Australia’s top job.

Cast your mind back to 2001 - the last time Kim Beazley challenged John Howard for Australia’s top job.

He’d recruited Labor smart man, 1960s TV quiz king, party president and former Hawke government science minister, Barry Jones, to devise a vote-winning, 10-year national research and development plan to be marketed as Knowledge Nation.

Unfortunately for Labor, two Howard government hangers-on torpedoed Knowledge Nation before its launch, since a diagram of it looked enormously complicated with a multitude of octopus-like lines linking universities, funding quangos, departments, research institutes and an array of other Canberra bureaucracies.

One hanger-on dubbed the mind-boggling bureaucratic network “Spaghetti and Meat Balls.”

Another called it “Noodle Nation”.

Thankfully the monster was never born since one of its inevitable outcomes would have been more highly-paid bossy Canberra bureaucrats telling us what to do and when and how to do it.

With that fizzog in mind, State Scene was prompted to look at the Howard government’s vast emerging water resources bureaucratic empire.

The reason was Mr Howard’s September 26 announcement that he’d be creating another quango: the Australian Government Office of Water Resources (AGOWR).

“What,” State Scene thought, “don’t we already have enough Canberra-run water bureaucracies?”

Alas, Canberra’s ballooning water saga looks like a re-run of Labor’s “Spaghetti and Meat Balls” or “Noodle Nation” approach, minus the derogatory name calling from Labor MPs and spin doctors.

By late September there already existed the $2 billion Australian Government Water Fund (AGWF), allegedly created “to deliver practical water projects to improve water efficiency and environmental outcomes.”

Within AGWF there’s something called the Water Smart Australia Programme (WSAP), plus the Raising National Water Standards Programme (RNWSP) and the   Community Water Grants Programme (CWGP).

Mr Howard said the AGWF was “fully committed to the implementation of the Council of Australian Governments National Water Initiative (NWI), plus the Murray-Darling Basin Inter-governmental Agreement (M-DBIA), including the Living Murray Initiative (LMI).”

Indeed, the NWI already has the National Water Commission (NWC), which, Mr Howard said, “was established to facilitate the NWI.”

Now, while pondering on these so-called initiatives, agreements and another commission, the AGOWR, was being born.

In other words, Canberra’s water octopus was acquiring more tentacles. All of which suggests water has been identified by the Howard government’s centralised electoral surveillance and computerised nationwide monitoring network that’s linked to all Liberal MPs’ offices as a pivotal political issue.

And whenever that happens, the creation of more bureaucracies follows.

The reason is that the creation of bureaucracies is seen as helping assure voters that their ruling elite is actually doing something about what it has identified as a ‘problem’.

Whether that something is empirically well-founded, effective and/or efficient is, of course, quite another matter.

State Scene remains sceptical of such centralist octopus-like initiatives; the throwing of ever more cash at what are dubbed problems.

One, just one, reason for such scepticism is that several years ago, when the first wad of Telstra shares were sold to what we now know were gullible “mums and dads”, a substantial slice of the cash government reaped from that sale was earmarked, via the $1 billion Natural Heritage Trust, for so-called land care.

State Scene would need at lot of convincing that throwing all those dollars by cash-flush Canberra for 10 years now has made a dint in land degeneration.

There’s also the generally overlooked matter of Canberra yet again barging its way, boots and all, into another area of state responsibility.

Precisely what Canberra politicians and bureaucrats can do that those attached to, and employed by, the states cannot is never explained.

What makes someone working in Canberra intellectually superior to those working in our state capitals or outlying regional centres?

These aren’t fanciful questions but rather ones that are never put to centralisers, like Mr Howard and Costello, so never answered.

Unless the unsaid answer is that Canberra has lots and lots more money than the states to throw around at vote-catching bureaucratic creating ventures.

If that’s so, then surely the question to confront is why it’s Canberra, not the states, that has all those funds.

To see how the Howard government’s centralist drive is proceeding and likely to continue, it helps to consider what’s happened to date.

Within hours of Mr Howard’s announcement of the AGOWR, treasurer Peter Costello went a huge centralising step further.

He contended Canberra should take legislative control of all interstate rivers – meaning certainly the Murray-Darling and probably several others – because he felt metropolitan Australians were getting water “too cheaply”.

According to one press report, he’s  vowed to “fix the problem of federalism” – meaning he wants cash-flush Canberra to usurp state water powers.

This suggests Howard government spin doctors will continue lambasting the media with horror stories of water deprivation as a precursor to the calling of a referendum at the coming federal election.

The reason is that Section 100 of the constitution is quite clear on where water powers reside – “The commonwealth [Canberra] 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.”

Moves are already afoot on devising ways of reversing this, so the states can be stripped of their water resources powers.

The same press report continued: “The treasurer has questioned whether it would be more effective if the states ceded control [over water] to Canberra.”

“His intervention coincided yesterday with John Howard’s decision to elevate water policy with the appointment of Parliamentary Secretary Malcolm Turnbull to head the new AGOWR.

“Mr Costello said while water reform could be delivered through constitutional change, a more achievable option was to seek agreement with the states to relinquish control.”

And don’t assume move to control rivers is the end of the matter – what about subterranean and other waters sources?

Little wonder the word from Canberra is that moves for a referendum are being planned for the next election.

For WA that means every river between the Ord, near Kununurra, and the Blackwood, near Augusta.

Ignore the fact that WA’s rivers are further from Canberra than New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.

Mr Howard has had much to say lately about the study of history. Perhaps he and Mr Costello should now call a geography summit.

In WA’s case especially such centralist plotting is far more absurd since our South West land division – the area between Geraldton, Esperance and Augusta – and the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, are separated from Canberra by the back of NSW, all of South Australia and the Northern Territory, plus the Nullarbor Plain, Great Victorian, Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts.

As far as water is therefore concerned West Aussies may as well be in another far away country.

There’s less justification for Canberra’s dabbling in the administration of WA’s rivers than in the case of Tasmania, which, after all, is a separate island.

But neither vast deserts nor the high seas of Bass Strait are seen as valid barriers to Canberra moving in to control water policy across the entire continent.

There’s seemingly no limit to the Howard-Costello-led Liberals’ desire to dabble in state affairs.

With all rivers, all aquifers would undoubtedly soon fall under Canberra’s control.

As would sewerage and drainage.

Claiming that isn’t fanciful since the Sydney MP Mr Howard has appointed his water resources czar, Malcolm Turnbull, who constantly highlights recycling water.

What makes all this even less principled, indeed, somewhat hypocritical, is the fact that the Liberals benefited from Mr Beazley’s Knowledge Nation embarrassment that their hangers-on dubbed “Spaghetti and Meat Balls” and “Noodle Nation”.

But what of their enormous and costly water resources bureaucratic octopus which already includes: the AGWF, WSAP, CWGP, NWI, LMI, RNWSP, NWC and the AGOWR, with, undoubtedly, more duplication and empire building in the pipeline?


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