He’s a very clever boy

I’ll get to that. But in the meantime, this week in politics we are looking at water again. Kevin Rudd is off on a whistle-stop tour of the states before the premiers meet with the prime minister on Friday, and his approach should be straightforward.

If the provincial leaders can come to terms with John Howard’s Grand Plan, or only have their typical gripes at the margin, the ALP leader should offer the government his support. Water is far too grave an issue to play politics with for politics own sake, or even to risk being seen to do so.

If, on the other hand, there are serious substantive policy, technical or funding problems that can be sensibly explained to the public, Rudd should back the premiers and negotiate an alternative deal with them for when he becomes prime minister. Howard will have to come on board, or his Grand Plan will collapse amid the “blame game”.

Either way, this is a good opportunity for the alternative prime minister to show that he is a responsible national leader. All he has to do on the way to Friday is manage the news cycle, and the agenda sets itself up.

On other fronts, with the Bush Administration’s most likeable publicist for the Iraq war also in town Friday, this issue can safely go onto auto-pilot, where it may be relied upon to deliver the government more self-inflicted punches to the head.

What tickles, however, is the story about Rudd refusing to say where he’ll live if he becomes prime minister, not wishing to pre-emptively discuss the matter in all humility, while inferring he’d rather stay in Queensland. Sic him prime minister.

Update: It’s only Tuesday (morning), yet the Grand Water Plan continues to crumble and the government has delivered itself an unforced political uppercut straight to the chin over Iraq. What on earth is the government thinking? The extra troops is virtually nothing in the Iraq context and the announcement comes as Newspoll shows 68 per cent think the war not worth it, 67 per cent think an exit timetable should be set or the troops withdrawn immediately and, surprise, surprise, the Ruddster has a 68 per cent approval rating. What next? Howard will attack Rudd for refusing to live at Kirribili? Granted the prime minister is not politically barking mad, one can only surmise that the Iraq tokenism is a Cheney offer that he could not refuse.

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14 Responses to He’s a very clever boy

  1. Robert says:

    I had the impression Rudd had already largely ok’d the Howard water proposal by suggesting he’d broker the deal with the Premiers; or was that misreported, whereby he may have actually said something like “I’ll have a look at it with a view to brokering”? Didn’t fully catch it at the time, but it struck as unusual, in that the Howard deal did seem to be cobbled together on the run, and Rudd didn’t seem to question it at all.

    Howard is a master negotiator by the looks of it , it will be interesting to see how Rudd fares as he negotiates on this issue this week. If he fails to broker a deal (as I loosely understand that’s what he says he would do), what of his standing then? Will he broker a better deal, and put that on the table as his work? (And as long as the states don’t come across as messy on this, too).

    Cheney’s visit has all the international appeal of an advertised local dwarf throwing contest, with no doubt similar attendant ruckus. It could cast further division between Howard and the electorate. At a personal level, I feel for the Tassie fish – poor buggers had nothing to do with it.

  2. cs says:

    Robert, Rudd has supported the PM’s proposal in principle and generally struck a positive note in saying he will do what he can to strike the deal, but this has always been conditional on the detail. The result must surely turn on the merits.

    From a theoretical perspective, John Quiggin has a decent discussion. In recent days, the premiers have raised issues concerning double-counting in the $10 billion, creating uncertainties about their existing program funding agreements, and the content and boundaries of the Grand Plan. There are also questions on the nature of the proposed authority and whether everything should be subject to a sunset clause. Even NSW’s Morris Iemma, who backed the plan from the outset, and who has no interest in a Canberra water stoush on the way to his election, has now taken a step back. Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument that many of these technical issues really are substantial and outstanding, several political issues arise.

    Firstly, if this really is a half-baked Great Plan, the most the prime minister can realistically expect from the premiers is a heads of agreement, subject to important caveats pending report backs from experts next year. Anything more on the basis of large policy unknowns would be a gift to the prime minister, granted on trust or the promise of trade-offs somewhere, somehow.

    In the face of these developments, Howard has asked the premiers not to play politics with water, thereby arguably becoming the first of the leaders to play politics with water. This looks a treacherous direction for Howard. The prime minister’s safest line of approach surely must be to confine the discussion over the Plan to the merits and to do his best to resolve them, thereby containing the premiers within the frame of them being bound to do their public policy duty as responsible heads of government. As I said, this comes down to the genuine technical merits of the Plan; but if these are such that this will finally come down to the premiers having to decide whether to gift Howard with trusting him to come back later and explain everything properly, why on earth should or would they agree?

    The chances of an agreement seem to only be reduced by Howard accusing the premiers of playing politics, thereby inviting them to respond in kind, creating, hey presto, an instant political stoush over water. The chances seem even more reduced by Howard also making it explicit that he wants to use his Plan to wedge Kevin Rudd on climate change. If this is the case, and remembering that we are assuming real unresolved policy problems, why don’t the Labor premiers, on exactly the same ethical political grounds as Howard is contemplating, gift Rudd by sinking the pm’s wedge? What mood are the premiers in, as they rub their wounds from a bruising battle to block Howard’s hostile takeover of industrial relations?

    To take a political toll, Rudd of course must have nothing to do with the demise of Howard’s Grand Plan, but he can negotiate his own alternative, which goes to a second political observation. Rudd has made several policy utterances about a new federalism, and in particular a better deal on health and education. Above the technical issues to do with water maintenance and allocation etc, the Plan contains interesting Constitutional issues which may supply some insight into how Rudd wants to work with the states.

    Should the repair of the Murray-Darling be undertaken by a referral of powers, complimentary legislation, or a memorandum of understanding? How would a referral interact with state responsibilities for other natural resource management? Similar questions about federal mechanisms also arise in the context of health policy and other state programs. This is to say that the aftershocks of a failed Grand Plan, if this is what we have at the end of the week, just might throw up a platform for Rudd to point the way through the federal-state bog more generally.

  3. Laurie says:

    The whole Grand Plan has struck me as quite shoddily put together, and thus ripe for the policy-unravelling by astute premiers. The fact that it never went to Cabinet, that Finance was not involved in discussions about the plan, and that it didn’t go through a COAG (or similar) process is, quite frankly, dodgy. Premiers are wise to look at least twice before signing on the dotted line.

  4. Robert says:

    All helpful points, Chris. What you say further highlights the value of Rudd laying out the “blame game” platform immediately upon arrival – a lot can be thrown back to that, or framed in those terms, as needed.

    That Rudd fails to deliver a deal, for whatever reason, would serve also to cast him in light of deficiency for his own policy. That may be a short term problem; still, questions will be asked once again “where is your policy?”. Rudd no doubt has his eye firmly fixed on the timing of when to play those cards, so at this point it does simply remain interesting. Deal or no deal, this week?

    A couple of things are hindering Rudd at the moment: matters of timing. He’s still being bedded down, and is being compared with Latham. In the thick of the policy fight, ie, policies on the table and an alternative PM looming larger, ‘Latham’ could be expected to recede from the scene (other than being thrown up by Howard, which could be to Howard’s detriment as ‘not being with the times’). Further, the big hits Rudd needs one would imagine can’t go off too early.

    Hence, while things are ticking over, and good public image platforms at least being laid, perhaps that is all required at this stage. Among many pleasing things about the improved health of our system, it is heartening to find Rudd call Howard on the ploys and plays of the latter’s politics – this is cutting through in a way not yet experienced by Howard. Maybe ‘the load of Grand Plan cobblers’ if it turns out that way can simply be called by Rudd to be exactly that, being good enough politically at this stage.

    One would hope he does show excellence of vision as an alternative in the matter of water – he’s giving every impression he has that ability, and you’d fairly expect the electorate to have some patience to wait for that, given there’s a time limit all round demanding action one way or another.

    With Howard so vulnerable, though, it is tantalising to want to see him slammed off of the paddock.

  5. Ken Lovell says:

    Peter Beattie’s played Howard at his own game … I love it! He’s seen Howard’s back-of-the-envelope $10 billion ‘plan’ and raised him with a National Party wet dream’s ‘turn the rivers inland and make the desert bloom’ vision. Bloody brilliant! He’s even costed it … ‘a few billions’, according to Pete on tonight’s 7.30 Report. Said with only the hint of a smile too.

    If only dumbass Morris hadn’t fallen over his feet in the rush to endorse Howard’s original nonsense the premiers would be having an absolute ball.

  6. Kimberella says:

    I’m not seeing it, cs.

    Howard’s now blaming Rudd for the Premiers’ walking away from the plan. The plan is crap, but doesn’t Rudd by doing his own shadow negotiations take co-responsibility for any failure to agree? Thus allowing Howard to use the “Labor is playing politics with our future” line?

  7. David Rubie says:

    If only dumbass Morris hadn

  8. cs says:

    Kim, agreeing or disagreeing is not the point, or at least not in my book. This is a policy matter at basis, and a very important one, which I don’t think any leader should play politics with for the sake of politics. As I said above, in my view, the result must depend on the merits, and how sensibly these can be explained to the public. If the plan is “crap”, as you say, we can only be grateful if there is no agreement.

    As I said, in the circumstances of no agreement, Howard will of course collapse the argument into the “blame game”, which he is already hedging with by constantly suggesting that Rudd and the Premiers are playing politics, which of course the PM himself is doing in spades by constantly suggesting this.

    To repeat, who wins the politics of a non-agreement will, or at least should, turn on the actual policy merits and how easily these can be explained. If the plan is so obviously “crap”, Howard will be on a hiding, spinning for cover off a sinking approval rating. To the extent that he can successfully spin the blame game onto Rudd, at best he can only mitigate the damage, for it will be his plan that collapsed, his leadership that failed – and Ruddy has in any event already hedged against the likelihood of this tactic by repeatedly labelling Howard for his blame game before the Grand Plan was even on the books. Moreover, if Ruddy can do the deal that Howard can’t or won’t, and announces a sensible agreement over an alternative Grand Plan pending his election, the PM will be politically flogged.

    High politics, big policy targets … dare to win? Still, with three whole days to go, and the LNP appearing on the verge of going totally berko, who knows what will be thrown up yet.

    (PS In case you missed it, read my comment above, rather than the post.)

  9. Robert says:

    Pending further revelations of any possible involvement by Rudd, as at end of play on friday, Howard has come out in front. Bearing in mind the deal isn’t completed, Rudd seems to have been sidelined.

    It may be a forlorn wish, but I’d like to see Rudd’s mind evident in a visionary policy alternative on this issue.

    Howard appeared to have this idea thrown together in response to uncomfortable heat regarding “climate change” as the issue; the q

  10. Robert says:

    question now is whether Howard considers his water ‘deal’ to hold strong politically for him on that larger issue for the next months until the election. Obviously he’ll need more, but one wonders how Howard views water as component of climate change.

  11. cs says:

    I’m not so sure how far ahead the PM came out Robert. The credit is pretty dissipated. Iemma probably got the best headlines out of it, Beattie didn’t do too bad, Bracksie is yet to come on board, Ruddy was in the conversation throughout, nothing is going to happen on the ground for a long while. Howard doesn’t seem to have taken any blows from it, but has far from cleaned up on the deal.

    The pm’s concession to the premiers about the four-person commission, with the Commonwealth and the States appointing two commissioners each, and instances of the federal minister having to table departures from the commission’s recommendations, looks a good basis for developing a similar body to oversee healthcare reform. In the past, the general pattern has been Commonwealth appointments in consutation with the states, which has always been Commonwealth dictation in practice. Rudd and federalism is one to watch.

  12. Robert says:

    Rudd and federalism is one to watch.

    Very much looking forward to it, Chris. The wider acceptance of global warming would indicate the electorate is ready to hear what Rudd has in mind (a problem for it in past years I’d suggest). No doubt chock-full of cost savings; a fresh managerial approach – done well this should be a head turner. With Rudd accused of being the Howard mini-me, which in effect serves to render Howard less visible on certain issues at worst, and has Rudd usurp Howard’s power at best, the tabling of a federalism vision would represent not only a huge point of difference, but a new direction (no doubt away from an increasingly fear-mongering pm).

    Could be fork’n good, mate.

    (ps, on the water issue, Howard seemed less pleased to have done the ‘deal’ than to have not given himself another uppercut. How might it go? “The times are not suiting him”. If – big if – Howard does get his comeuppance this time around, the last thing you’d expect would be that he does it to himself and belts himself out of the ring. Still, he was always governing ghouls and boxing phantoms. You never can tell!)

  13. Tom says:

    we’re pulling for rudd over here stateside. Screw howard. Keep your bs to yourself.

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