Friday, May 18, 2007

The Prime Minister's slap-dash water plan.

The Prime Minister John Howard received a Department of Finance costing of his $10 billion water plan only hours before he announced it on January 25. The Finance Department began costing the plan only two days earlier, on January 23.

Those costings were emailed to the Prime Minister's Department just hours ahead of the Australia Day eve announcement, some hours after plan had been outlined in newspapers published that morning including The Canberra Times.

The timeline is revealed in a list of documents obtained by The West Australian newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act...

The newspaper sought documents created in the Department of Finance and Administration regarding the costing of the $10 billion plan and any advice about the plan sent to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The department located 31 documents, the first of which was dated January 23, just two days before plan was unveiled by the Prime Minister in the Great Hall of Parliament House.

It was headed “Draft costing spreadsheet for various components”. The second document was an email entitled “Re: Draft costing components” sent on January 25, on the day of the Prime Minister’s announcement.

The timeline shows that the Department created no further documents about the plan for more than a week. Four were entitled “Questions regarding draft costing” and six were entitled “Responses to questions” suggesting that the departments were till trying to sort of details of the costings for up to four weeks after the announcement.

The Department of Finance refused the newspaper access to each of the documents on the grounds that it was deliberative in character and that its disclosure would be contrary to the public interest.

But one of them appears to have been disclosed by the government itself. Entitled “Attachment A:
A National Plan for Water Security, Costings” it was attached to the water plan released by the Prime Minister on January 25 and is available on his website.

The West Australian understands that it is the document created on January 25 to which it has been denied access.

The Department of Finance has previously told a Senate estimates committee that it was only given one page of information to cost.

The Department’s Secretary Dr Ian Watt told the committee that he had been asked only to "run an eye lightly” over it.

The significance of the information released to the West Australian newspaper is the date of that request. It appears to have been made on January 23, just two days before the Prime Minister’s announcement.

The Finance Minister Senator Minchin defended the process to the Senate committee saying that the $10 billion 10 year program cost “1 billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure, let’s keep it in perspective”.

The head of the Treasury Dr Ken Henry has also revealed that his department was only minimally involved in the preparation of the water plan telling his staff that “water has got away from us a bit in recent times” adding that “it will come back for some quality Treasury input at some stage - it will have to.”

This week at a post-budget address Dr Henry called for water to be freely traded, allowing it to move from areas in which it had a low value to areas in which it had a high value, something that the Coalition - in particular the National Party - have resisted.

The $10 billion initiative unveiled by the Prime Minister instead provided $6 billion in assistance to farmers to line and pipe delivery channels and install more accurate water meters. $3 billion was to be spent buying back water entitlements from farmers along the Murray Darling Basin.

None of the money has yet been spent and the legislation has not yet been introduced in part because Victoria has not agreed to hand over to the Commonwealth the powers requested, arguing that the plan has been poorly thought out.

The Water Resources Minister Mr Turnbull said yesterday that the most important parts of the legislation had now been worked out. “They are being negotiated in fine detail now, and the second part of the fine detail draft - the draft bill - will be with the states by the end of this week or at the latest early next week,” he said.

He attacked the Labor Party for “grubbing around in the past trying to get a cynical political advantage.” But the requests for access to documents have come from the media, not the Labor Party.

On Wednesday the Seven Network revealed that it had been denied access to 22 documents used in the creation of the plan, including a diagram entitled “Water Management”.

Asked on ABC radio why such a diagram should be kept secret, Mr Turnbull said he wouldn’t speculate, and that while he might have seen the diagram in question he had seen many documents and the project had had input from many people.

Officials from the departments of Environment, Finance and Treasury will appear before Senate estimates committees next week and are likely to face further questions about the freedom of information revelations.