Townie Turnbull’s bridle waltz

Paul Sheehan, Columnist, SMH August 3, 2009

I once telephoned Senator Bill Heffernan and the conversation began with this exchange: ‘‘Bill, what’s that din in the background?’’ Heffernan: ‘‘I’m on the tractor.’’

‘‘Are you getting any rain?’’ Heffernan: ‘‘The bastard!’’

Apparently it hadn’t rained. Heffernan has always been, throughout his gratuitously turbulent political career, a working farmer. He knows vastly more about farming than any member of the Rudd Government. He also knows more about the interaction of the rural economy with the landscape. He thus has a front-row seat at the disaster unfolding on the Australian landscape.

Heffernan’s other signifying role in federal politics has been his championing of Malcolm Turnbull inside the Liberal Party, long before Turnbull ran for the seat of Wentworth. Heffernan urged Turnbull to ‘‘fix’’ the NSW Liberal Party by entering NSW politics. He regrets Turnbull did not take his advice. As he told me last week: ‘‘He’d be premier and he’d be killing it!’’

Heffernan talks about Turnbull like a father talks about a talented bastard son, someone close but just out of reach. Nor is either man famed for delicacy. Like father, like son. Last week Heffernan recounted the time he invited Turnbull out for a weekend riding in the hill country. ‘‘Malcolm turned up with his own saddle and bridle!’’

This impressed the gnarled bushy. So did Turnbull’s knowledge of farming and landscape, and his horsemanship, which all came via his grandfather and from owning his own working farm.

‘‘He rode me into the ground,’’ Heffernan said.

When Turnbull said he had his sights set on Canberra, not Macquarie Street, Heffernan helped him there, too. He tried to engineer safe passage into the Senate, but that proved difficult and Turnbull turned a Napoleonic eye on his own backyard. In 2004 he took Wentworth by force of will and force of political arms. It was no accident that Turnbull was elevated to the ministry within his first term and appointed minister for environment and water resources, the portfolio closest to Heffernan’s heart.

They became a team. As Turnbull reminded me over the weekend: ‘‘In 2006 I worked up a plan with Heffo for the federal government to take over the Murray-Darling Basin water management. This was one of those things that everyone agreed should be done but said it was too hard …

‘‘Despite all that, we legislated the Water Act 2007, which vested the right to manage the basin’s water in the hands of the Commonwealth in the form of a new agency, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority …

‘‘Since then, Rudd has blown it. Instead of driving home the advantage with all of the political capital of a newly elected federal government, he has gone backwards and the states have more say. Instead of investing in infrastructure, they are spending a fortune on buying back water entitlements – air, in most cases – while irrigation networks crying out for investment are neglected.’’

Last Friday Turnbull had a meeting with Peter Andrews, the subject of three compelling editions of Australian Story on the ABC. (Turnbull himself will be the subject of a dramatic Australian Story tonight.) Andrews, a rough-hewn farmer with an impressive record of landscape rehabilitation, has gained the support of some notable scientists along with the former governor-general Michael Jeffery.

Andrews believes, and many think he has proved, that the Australian landscape has been completely mismanaged for the past 220 years by policies which reversed the natural order of the environment. What Europeans encountered was a system which stored water in natural soaks beneath the floodplains, keeping the land hydrated despite sparse rain. But the Europeans thought they knew better. They – we – reversed the cycle, and turned the floodplains into unnatural drains, not natural dams. Erosion ran amok.

Andrews’s view is supported by the madness in Walgett recently, when the NSW Government put 1.2 billion litres of water from the Great Artesian Basin up for auction. The water had supposedly been ‘‘saved’’ by good management and was thus available for sale. Complete nonsense.

Turnbull and Heffernan agree.

‘‘This auctioning of new entitlements from the Great Artesian Basin is unbelievable,’’ Turnbull told me yesterday. ‘‘The whole capping [of artesian wells] and piping program was designed to restore and sustain the basin. And what does the NSW Government do? It starts flogging off water rights again! It’s incredible. Southern Australian is getting drier. The numbers are all there for all to see on www.mdba There is less rain, and less run-off, so all our groundwater resources must be cherished.’’

Because water rights have been massively over-allocated by government in the past, the Rudd Government is spending huge amounts buying water rights which are worthless, while the Murray-Darling Basin continues to degrade. The problem is more immediate and grave than global warming.

On Saturday, in an essay in the Herald, Turnbull took aim at the gap between reality and the rhetoric of the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd: ‘‘If there is one consistency in his economic meanderings, it is a breathtaking, Orwellian disregard for the truth.’’

Yes, the scale of Rudd’s disingenuousness is becoming Orwellian.

Political sleights-of-hand are masked by clouds of high-sounding rhetoric. Rudd is fortunate that Turnbull is leading a party which behaves more like a debating society than a team when it comes to global warming and climate change.

Despite this liability, on the two biggest issues facing Australia – the degrading environment and the degrading budget fundamentals – a clear choice has emerged between the visions of Rudd and Turnbull.

And Turnbull – the liberal Liberal – is emerging as more credible on both.

Leave a Reply

No Comments »