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States rights

I have always been a vigorous supporter of the national interest taking precedence over states' rights in this country. The Australian Constitution, while in many ways robust and successful, was also a document of compromise, with the six states ceding specific areas of responsibility to the Commonwealth, and retaining everything else.

So it is with water and the river system of this continent. The Murray-Darling Basin consists of rivers flowing from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and reaching the ocean in South Australia. With drought so severe, water management so ramshackle and man-made climate change starting to bite, desperate action is required.

But along with centralised government comes responsibility for sound administration - transparent government, effective review mechanism in the Senate, vigorous debate in the House of Representatives, an independent public service and an accountable executive. Theoretically, what we call the Westminster system of government. In practice, everything John Howard has twisted and abused to his own ends for the past eleven years.

On the surface of it, the Federal Government's National Water Security Plan, announced by JWH on 25 January 2007 is to be applauded. But then we learned that this gtandiose plan, estimated by the PM to cost $10 billion to implement was not (a) discussed by Cabinet; and (b) costed by Treasury prior to its release.

Westminster system? How about "wedge politics" and "election year".

Morris Iemma, Peter Beattie and Mike Rann have agreed to cede their states' responsibilities over the Murray-Darling basin to the Commonwealth. Steve Bracks hasn't. He thinks Victoria's interests aren't being looked after, and, not surprisingly, he doesn't trust John Howard.

Water usage is a huge crisis in this country. In the context of the Murray-Darling system, there are the needs of urban dwellers (not just the many country towns, but Adelaide itself); the needs of primary industry (who have been threatened with the cancellation of irrigation allocations from July) and of their consumers (ie, us); and the needs of the wetlands, whose destruction would cause unspeakable long-term ecological and biodiversity damage.

Management of Australia's water resources in a time of climate change does need to be centralised at Commonwealth level. But can it be trusted with a man who told the Queensland Media Club last Monday:

"... to say that climate change is the overwhelming moral challenge for this generation of Australians is misguided at best and misleading at worst"