WATER: Who will stand up for states’ rights?
Canberra can’t be allowed to take control of the state rivers, argues Hal G.P. Colebatch.
Working, balanced federalism historically has proved an enemy of dictatorship and overweening government. Yet plans announced by the Prime Minister for Commonwealth control of water look like a new threat to the Australian federal bargain.
How far do these plans go, geographically and also politically? If Canberra grabs Murray-Darling water, why should it stop there?
Federal water supremo Malcolm Turnbull previously called the National Water Initiative “the national blueprint for water reform in Australia”, and the consistent thrust of his speeches has been for more federal control of all water. No question of Canberra offering advice, just taking power. Now the matter has escalated.
There is sense in NSW, Victoria and South Australia co-ordinating use of the water they share. But look at the rest of the map of Australia. In Western Australia some water (not used much by anyone) flows into the Ord Dam from the Northern Territory in virtually unpopulated country. Otherwise WA’s water system is completely self-contained. All its major dams are near the west coast. Very little of Queensland’s river water flows across its boundaries, and last time I looked none of Tasmania’s rivers crossed into other states.
Where Queensland and NSW do share a few streams their respective governments should, one hopes, be intellectually capable of coming to agreements about their use. And do the premiers of Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania believe they are too stupid to manage their own self-contained rivers and dams?
If it is tacitly agreed that the states are not competent to manage their own water, perhaps with Canberra’s advice, why should they be thought competent to manage anything?
The Constitution is clear that powers not specifically allotted to the federal government remain with the states. It was not intended that Canberra take more power from the states every time a complex situation arises.
When the Constitution was agreed to in 1901, there was no intention of giving the Commonwealth authority over rivers and dams. Section 51 of the Constitution excludes Commonwealth power over inland water. It is hard to see how the Commonwealth could get around that fact by abusing the external-affairs power this time. How could the Swan or the Blackwood rivers in Western Australia or some inland creek be said to have international aspects? Some ingenious rationale may be found, but even if accepted legally it would attack the Constitution’s spirit and intent.
Social engineers have never much liked the Australian Constitution: it has too many checks and balances and tends to limit government power. Turnbull previously found this irritating document hindered his plans for an Australian republic of a sort which would further centralise power.
Centralisation of power has always been essential to Labor’s ideology. Remember Rex Connor’s crank schemes for national pipeline grids criss-crossing Australia, and Gareth Evans using the RAAF to overfly the Franklin River in Tasmania in some sort of intimidatory exercise?
Labor Party centralism may help explain why the WA, Queensland and Tasmanian ALP state governments and the ALP federal members and senators from those states have been so silent on the issue. But it does not explain the silence of most of their state and federal Liberal politicians.
This could be a good excuse to gut the Constitution. Politics is about power, and environmental and associated concerns may make plausible-looking Trojan horses for smuggling greater centralisation of power into our polity, especially if the states fail to provide good policies and also fail to defend the Constitution’s spirit.
The three great historic issues of Australian politics have been socialism, defence/foreign affairs and federalism. Socialism, in the old sense at least, is largely off the board. In defence/foreign affairs the differences between the serious political parties are now fairly marginal. But federalism remains. Will any leading political figure defend it now?
— Hal G.P. Colebatch is a Perth author and lawyer. He is the son of the late Australian politician Sir Hal Colebatch (1872-1953). This article is from The Australian, January 26, 2007.
“It is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected. Were not this great country already divided into States, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority.
“Every State again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each country again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor.
“Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread. It is by this partition of cares, descending in gradation from general to particular, that the mass of human affairs may be best managed, for the good and prosperity of all.”
— From the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), author of the charter of American independence in 1776 and second United States President (1801-09).