I am writing this piece from the city of Taoyuan on the beautiful island of Taiwan where I teach a course on “good governance in land administration”. Good governance is more likely to happen in a liberal democracy, but, it not always does. The desperate efforts of the Victorian government pushing the North-South-Pipeline project is a case in point. Components of good governance are transparency and participation, both of which are non-existent in the case of the pipeline project.
That politicians treat voters with contempt, is nothing new in emerging (young), transitional democracies. But that this can also happen in a well established and more or less functional system is quite remarkable. The current Victorian state government is a great show case for arrogance of the ones who govern vis-a-vis the governed. In its election manifesto before the 2006 election the Labour party claimed that they would not take water from the north of the divide if elected. Making and keeping promises is of course an entirely different matter. Democratic institutions and governing mechanisms guaranteeing, that the strong cannot push the weak around at will, seem to be out of order.
Many political analysts think that the government has deliberately misled the Victorian public in justifying the pipeline project (http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2008/10/01/11821_opinion-news.html and www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2008/10/07/13471_opinion-news.html).
That the labour governments does not give a damn for rural populations is nothing new. Their voters are mainly sitting in the metropolitan area of Melbourne. However, the way the Victorian government pushed its ambitious North-South Pipeline project through is worth analysing. Here, you can witness an ecological disaster in the making. If the 21st century has more of this to offer to us in rural Australia, one of the backbones of the Australian rural economy will go down the gurgler in the years to come. The rural-urban divide is widening these days.
A similar pipeline project for the rural towns of Ballarat and Bendigo (The Goldfields superpipe) incurring huge costs to the taxpayers has miserably failed. The simple truth is: “where there is no water, there is nothing to be taken” and therefore the pipeline remains mainly dry.
Moreover, private property rights are not well protected these days, it seems. The so called “public interest” overrules private rights and dispossess many. That’s also so in the pipeline case. At the end of September some of our neighbours (Deb McLeish and Deb Bertalli) protesting the “invasion” of their lands by pipeline workers were taken into custody by police. If the state would react like this vis-a-vis those gamblers (CEO’s, bank and fund managers, traders, speculators, at Lehman Brothers or AIG, etc.) who destroyed billions of wealth in the recent financial crisis, our jails would be full. But they all walk free, enjoying even bailouts paid for by the little guys and their taxes.
Grass roots initiatives such as “Plug the Pipe” have organised widespread protests but to no avail. The government’s slogan “Our water, our future” does not include rural residents, it seems. But rural Victorians cannot even say, “our water, Melbourne’s future”, because there is no water in the rural hinterland of Victoria. Lake Eildon is at 23% of its capacity and allocations are just 4%. Water restrictions in many rural settlements (97 rural towns and cities) and are on stage 4 and this not just since yesterday (since 2002). The city is thirsty. This year Melbourne consumes more water than all the Goulburn farmers use for irrigating their crops.
An article carried by The Age website today, discussed the findings of a confusing state government-commissioned report (by the Sydney based Institute of Sustainable Futures) which comes to the conclusion that Melbourne does not need any new water-saving schemes in the future because of the abundance of water sources. I wonder how that will happen?
Eildon reservoir dry like a bone
I came across an interesting website when participating in an e-democracy forum the other day. As a wonderful example of participatory democracy the city of Melbourne was praised. On www.futuremelbourne.com.au you can inform yourself about the vision the government has for the years to come. You can also participate in writing the plan of the town if you enter the wiki link. There are videos, maps, an e-village, and other things, state of the art, as far as modern participatory democracy is concerned, so you might think.
If the same method would have been applied when the North-South Pipeline project was in the making, the results might have been different. Instead secrecy, intrigue and deceit were the tools used by the Victorian government. Participatory democracy is only for those the government cares for but not us rural folks, that’s clear.
What does Melbourne want to become in 2010 according to the website?
A City for People
A Prosperous City
An Eco City
A Connected City
A Knowledge City
A Bold & Inspirational City
The same cannot be said about the rural areas surrounding the metropolitan area. They will be dried out so that Melbourne has sufficient water to become, let it slowly roll over your tongue, an “eco-city”.
Whow, that blows me away, really. It’s not easy to not turn into a cynic. I guess the Victorian government’s decision-makers should have sat in my classes on good governance here in Taoyuan. Though, I doubt it would have helped.