The ALP, North South pipeline and scare politics

The ALP, North South pipeline and scare politics

Sept 2008

The recent convolutions about whether the Liberals support the North – South pipeline must act as one more reminder that ecological imperatives can never fully escape the gravitational pull of electoral politics. As the Parties struggle to keep voters happy both north and south of the divide, both the public and the environment are, once more, let down by political wrangling and  behaviour that is shaped more by focus groups than good policy.

There is a deeper story here, one about how Victorian governments have tried to respond to rising demands for water in a drying environment. Like current positioning on the pipeline, it is clear that water policy in the state is ever more beholden to perceived electoral sentiment. In contrast to this, in the early 1990s, the government authority Melbourne Water, in its pre corporatised form, framed and considered a series of far thinking and ecologically sound responses to water shortage. This included measures like decentralised waste treatment plants that then released clean water into streams. There was a strong emphasis on demand management – reducing our personal and collective use of water resources rather than looking for ‘new’ sources to feed our addiction. With the Kennett era agenda of privatisation, there were profound changes at Melbourne Water and it lost a lot of its visionary edge. To its credit, the government lead by Steve Bracks retained an emphasis on reducing demand (and it paid off in terms of public response although as widely noted, domestic use is just a tiny fraction of overall water consumption in Melbourne and across the state). The water minister, John Thwaites both cared about and was engaged with the issue. His introduction of dual-pipe systems into some new housing estates between Cranbourne and Officer where drinking water is replaced with recycled water to be used for toilets, gardens and washing cars is one example of what good water policy looks like.

But as the drought wore on for almost a decade, and our lawns faded and restrictions became part of life in Melbourne, the Liberals sniffed political opportunity. In the 2006 election they ran hard on the idea of a new dam, at Arundel, in Melbourne’s north west, which would clearly have been ecological madness. And while that debate was lost in the public realm, something shifted within the state government. It seemed that sound policy – based on reducing per capita and collective demand, and finding new ways to better use the water we have – such as rain water tanks and collection of storm water – were largely thrown out in favour of ‘nation building’ projects. John Brumby’s propensity for mega projects – in this case the North South pipeline and the desalination plant near Wonthaggi – became emblematic of the new approach, applying an expensive and centralised technological fix to our water problems. How much blame the Liberals must carry for this shift in policy because of their scare-mongering will become clear in coming years. Thankfully the ALP continues to rule out a new dam on the Mitchell River in Gippsland.  Mr Brumby still has time to bring water policy back into the realm of logical, low cost, high job and decentralised solutions.

The Age recently reported that a coalition of green groups have become disillusioned with the Brumby governments approach to environmental issues. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who is tracking the debate – from championing GE crops and ‘clean coal’, to the delivery of a feed in tariff for solar power that will set back the development of renewable power in the state, it is clear what direction this government is heading when it comes to environmental policy. Our water catchments continue to be logged, and there are a range of coal projects in the pipeline, most immediately the proposed HRL coal fired power station in the Latrobe Valley, which will have massive greenhouse implications.

During the Kennett era, John Brumby played a key role in bringing the state back to the ALP. He worked assiduously in rural and suburban Victoria to listen to the concerns of people affected by Kennett’s privatisation and broader political agenda. He turned this disaffection into electoral pain for Kennett. When one considers the litany of unpopular environmental projects being enacted by the government he now runs – including dredging of the Bay, the desal plant, and the pipeline, there are some very clear, if slightly ironic, messages for Mr Brumby.

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