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The Not So Fun Water Fight With Changing Goal Posts

It’s Friday and in politics that can mean one of two things. More often than not it’s that nothing of significance is announced by the incumbent government or the opposition. Sometimes, on the other hand, Friday is used by a government to release a policy that the administration wants eased into the public arena, or relatively ignored on announcement, for fear of the damage or embarrassment it may cause a government, struggling or otherwise.

Today was an example of the latter for the Gillard Government. The Murray-Darling Basin has long been on the political agenda, particularly so since former Prime Minister John Howard set up the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, thus beginning the process of water reform.

Today, with just weeks left before the MDBA plan is finalised, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that an extra 450 gigalitres, on top of the putative 2750 gigalitres, would be returned to the Murray-Darling.

While the 2750 gigalitres would be returned to river system, by-and-large through water buybacks and cuts to allocations, the new addition to the target would largely be kept in the basin via water efficiency measures. Water saving measures would also be achieved by removing capacity constraints, meaning that structures and bottlenecks that constrain the flow of water would be removed.

However, the phraseology used when talking about the change opens the door for some of the extra 450 gigalitre target to be achieved by the same method as would be applied to the 2750 gigalitre target. That is, cutting water allocations.  The Environment Minister Tony Burke said today in talking about the extra efforts announced, that the outcome would “largely” be achieved by water-saving methods.

To achieve the new outcome, Prime Minister Gillard today, flanked by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, announced $1.7 billion over ten years aimed at these water efficiency projects along Australia’s largest river system.

It would appear on the face of it, that the extra figure and its associated costs announced today, is about one of two things.

The first is that it is a sweetener aimed at getting South Australia on-side and it has obviously worked, South Australia is now firmly behind the push to reform the Murray-Darling in its new form.

The second is that today’s announcement is a distraction from the much bigger task, getting all the states to agree in the coming weeks on the initial 2750 gigalitre target. This outcome is a lot less likely, even though the additional 450 gigalitre target, through the way that it will be achieved, appears likely to be widely supported by the state governments.

Then there’s the farmers and irrigators. They are the ones in the middle of this dispute and the ones both with the most to lose and the most to gain. Take too much from them and the water is not there for food production. Take too little and the long-term viability of the basin system is in jeopardy.

Farmers are feeling the pain already. They are extremely worried about all the targets announced so far, even to the point of protesting by burning copies of the initial MDBA draft plan.

A curious element of the policy announced today is the year of delivery for the recommended water retention in the MDBA report. The full realisation of the target would not be delivered until 2024 under changes from Environment Minister Tony Burke.

To have delayed this time-frame both makes the final outcome the problem of a future government if it goes awry and second, it implies that the government were so concerned about the potential negative impact, likely on farmers, that they simply had to push the pain so far away from the likely end of their governance of the country.

In short, there might be widespread support for the additional target announced today by the Labor Government because the methods under that proposal are widely favoured among the states, however agreement over the whole plan is far from fruition.

Games and More Games, But Where to Now for the NDIS?

The latest Council of Australian Governments meeting has gone off with a bit of a hitch. The National Disability Insurance Scheme launch sites were front and centre of the COAG agenda today with the states and territories coming together to try and win a launch site, well in most cases at least.

At the meeting today in Canberra a total of three launch sites were announced by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania managed to reach agreement with the Gillard Government to co-fund trials in their respective states and territories.

But alas, a fourth and final trial location could not be found. The states and territories who will be hosting launch sites are all Labor administrations. Those loudest in their criticism of the government over the project, from a positive interest in at least trying to find an outcome, to in Queensland’s case, not having an interest at all in contributing funds until at least 2014-15 are all Liberal state Premiers.

Western Australia a Liberal state, under Premier Colin Barnett will at least be trying out their own version of the scheme, ‘My Way’ which the federal government will have a look at to see how their experiment at a state-based scheme goes. But really, all states should just get with the same program, but points for trying.

New South Wales and Victoria, on the face of it, seem part of the way there. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced that his state had $570 million for the trial, a not insignificant amount, over half of the commonwealth allocation in the May budget which put aside $1 billion for the four initial locations for the disability scheme.

Together with Victoria, the two states with conservative Premiers put together a joint bid. Their proposal was to cater for 15,000 people with a disability with the New South Wales part of the two-state agreement to be put in place in the Hunter region.

But again money was the killer here. The Prime Minister wanted NSW Premier O’Farrell to contribute a further $70 million for the trial and the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu an extra $40 million for their states to be able to have one of the four initial NDIS service areas.

The first point is that the money that NSW were willing to bring to the table was an extremely generous sum for a scheme which the Productivity Commission recommended should be fully funded by the feds.

Second, surely each of the three parties in the negotiations for the joint bid had the ability to make up the $100 million funding shortfall between them, whether that be either of the two states or the Gillard Government, or all three sharing the extra burden.

As far as Queensland goes, with relatively new state Premier Campbell Newman at the helm, the whole situation is far from encouraging. The Queensland Premier, Mr Newman came to the meeting of Australian governments proposing to spend not a single cent on a proposal for a launch site. Interestingly though, Mr Newman brought a proposal to COAG today for a launch site to be held in the town of Gympie, north of Brisbane.

But that of course was never ever going to translate into the northern state being granted the right  by the commonwealth to enjoy the benefits of being one of the first four places in the country to see how the eventually national scheme will operate.

The overall point is that all Liberal states were playing politics. It (the funding job) could have been done. Surely too, the federal government, in the knowledge that in twelve months time they will likely not be in power and not having to stump up further funds for the essential disability policy. were also playing political games.

What was interesting today and in the lead-up to the crucial Council of Australian Governments meeting was that the Northern Territory Government, under Chief Minister Paul Henderson, a Labor administration appeared relatively absent from the debate and discussion. The motive likely the upcoming election in the Northern Territory.

So where to now for the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

While the federal government should have followed the Productivity Commission recommendation to fully fund the scheme it is clear that it will never happen that way.

But it is clear that the NDIS just has to happen. People with a disability have waited far too long for a serious attempt at a framework meeting their basic but diverse needs in a converted national approach.

Like it or lump it, the states have to alter their stance on the project to a standpoint where they are willing to contribute more whilst still pushing for the commonwealth to fund the vast majority of the costly policy.

With a likely Liberal Government at the federal level next year, it is important that their in principle support, which appears to be wavering quite strongly, is converted into real support for following the already embarked upon implementation process.

Lobby groups, the state and current federal government will need to continue to put the pressure on the current federal Opposition to make their uncertain bipartisan support a reality. Nobody wants to see an incoming Abbott Government in power suddenly baulk when faced with needing to implement a policy that the Liberal Premiers have all had varying degrees of difficulty acknowledging is important.

But again, at the same time, the current administration at the federal level must take their share of the blame for what is a very worrying juncture in the NDIS debate.

All states and the federal government need to work together more and be more willing to compromise. They all have the means to contribute something. People with a disability cannot afford to miss out with another failed policy.

The Will They Or Won’t They NDIS Game Rears Its Head

After a short period of time where discussion of the National Disability Insurance Scheme was almost completely non existent in the political discussion engaged in by the federal government we’ve seen in recent weeks a return to the discourse of the very important initiative. This is because the Council of Australian Governments, that’s COAG for the politically inclined, commences tomorrow.

Funding has been a key area of dispute between the states and the commonwealth and this has been telegraphed in the media ever since negotiations over the funding and implementation of the scheme began. This is set to continue in earnest at COAG as is competition over which states or territories have the privilege of hosting one of the four launch sites announced by the Gillard Government as part of the May budget. This announcement came with $1 billion over four years in federal funding for the scheme.

The states of course are crying poor, particularly Queensland, where the new Premier has inherited a budget deficit from the former Bligh Government of $2.8 billion and a debt of $64 billion for 2011/12.

The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, whose state has agreed to put $20 million toward the policy but has said today “we don’t have the budget capacity to go further at this time”.

In Queensland’s case, the Premier will go to COAG asking for a launch site to be held in Gympie, north of Brisbane, but without a commitment from his state to put any money toward the launch site.

Premier Campbell Newman supports the scheme in principle but wants the commonwealth government to fund it and he is right with the latter part of the following comment where Mr Newman today said “we’re prepared to support the program, we’re prepared to support a trial site in Gympie, but they (federal government) must fund it and that’s what the Productivity Commission said”.

It is indeed true that the Productivity Commission in its advice to the government on the implementation of the important NDIS said that the commonwealth should fund the scheme.

But the commonwealth itself is limited to what it has available to allocate to the implementation of the policy. They’ve allocated that $1 billion over 4 years, that’s $250 million a year for the first four years.

That’s not to say they couldn’t have done much more, they could have. Instead of plunging more money into areas of spending that have had or will likely not have highly positive outcomes they could have contributed more of the billions of dollars they did allocate during the budget on a policy initiative that will help people with a disability engage in community activities.

Policy to help people with a disability has been chronically overlooked by successive governments of both political colours at the local state and federal level since de-institutionalisation. So the government must be praised for at least bringing this onto the agenda and trying to get outcomes in the area even though they’ve not exactly followed the policy prescription from the experts.

But back to the state governments and their response. They all want it, but some are much more willing than others, for differing reasons, to stump up funds for the Medicare-like project.

Regardless of what the Productivity Commission said about which level of government should fund the scheme and despite the wrong policy response from the ALP Government, all states do have the capacity to at least contribute some existing funds used for disability support were their respective states to win the right to host a launch site. The money would be going into providing the same services to the people in the areas chosen for crying out loud. Surely even Queensland could spare $20 million or at least something, a few million dollars perhaps.

It does appear increasingly like the federal government, aware that this time next year they may well be close to or have already lost government, are trying to look like they’re doing something on the issue while actually achieving much less than they’re capable of.

It’s also less and less likely a future Coalition government, who’ve announced strong support for the NDIS, but then had MPs unleash rhetoric which makes you question the sincerity of the bipartisanship will be willing to take up the political challenge and implement the National Disability Insurance Scheme. If not that, it is reasonable to at least question the cohesion and level of agreement within the party over such a big funding initiative. This would have the ability to collapse further once in government.

The important thing to note is that all levels of government do have the capacity to deal with the implementation of such a scheme. If governments didn’t waste so many millions and billions it could be done in a heartbeat. But the political games are now on and the political will of both the Labor Government and the Opposition are being and will be tested. So to the collective will of the states must be put under the spotlight. That first test has started and will accelerate tomorrow.

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