It is useful for the Albanian government that all states on the continent are in Labor hands – but only to a certain extent.
This week we saw the Queensland Government oppose federal plans to rein in the national infrastructure program, while Victorian resistance to changes to the Murray-Darling Water Plan prompted the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, to blame.
Infrastructure is always a thorny issue. The program is full of nonsense, regardless of who is in power. Even when this is not at stake, what should be built and when it should be built is often contested.
In May, the government announced a 90-day review of the $120 billion infrastructure pipeline inherited from the Coalition.
Infrastructure Minister Catherine King said the number of projects had increased from about 150 to 800. The government’s goal was to reduce the number of projects (many of which were small) and reorder priorities.
High inflation, cost overruns, and shortages of labor and materials undermine the program.
The political difficulties of scrapping or changing plans, which often involve negotiations with states and territories, are quite obvious. Today they have become much worse.
The government has received its assessment and Treasurer Jim Chalmers says the overall cost of the program has exploded by some $33 billion.
Also, a report from the International Monetary Fund last week said infrastructure projects should be rolled out at a “more measured and coordinated pace, taking into account supply constraints, to alleviate inflationary pressures.”
Chalmers gets this message out, but it is not well received in Queensland.
State Treasurer Cameron Dick was blunt. “Queensland is Australia’s growth state and we need more infrastructure, not less,” he said in a tweet.
“If infrastructure cuts are necessary, they should be applied to low-growth, high-debt southern states.” (Fun fact: Queenslanders Chalmers and Dick’s election offices share a common wall.)
Queensland Police Minister Mark Ryan said: “I have a clear message for Jim. Jim is a friend of mine. Jim, these plans better not happen in Queensland.”
The last thing the Palaszczuk government wants is for projects to be cancelled, reduced or delayed. She finds herself in a particularly precarious position: she will face elections in a year and will fight for her survival.
Queensland has a clear political interest in resisting infrastructure cuts, but there is also a national problem. With large numbers of migrants arriving in Australia, demand for transport and other infrastructure will increase rather than decrease. The reductions and slowdowns that will be made will have to be carefully evaluated.
The federal government maintains that the current pipeline is unrealistic and could not be achieved without changes anyway. But even if decisions on cuts, reductions or postponements make economic sense, they could, in political terms, constitute an electoral time bomb for the government.
Even minor and unworthy projects can be sensitive in marginal seats. Their removal could open up opportunities for the opposition. Additionally, funds available for new projects are likely to be limited.
When the government completes its negotiations with the states and the results are announced, King will be the lead minister defending the decisions.
As we saw in the conflict over the rejection of Qatar Airways’ offer for additional flights, it struggles under pressure. She might find it difficult.
The fight over the government’s water changes is focused on planned amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
The legislation, which will soon be considered by the Senate, expands the activities that can be funded and extends the deadlines for completing water reclamation projects. Most importantly, it removes the cap on additional water “buybacks” by the federal government for the environment.
The Murray-Darling Plan remains fraught with consequences because the interests of upstream and downstream users and their governments differ. Nonetheless, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales signed – although NSW did so reluctantly.
But Victoria, where the Andrews government has built close relationships with irrigators, stood firm, defending its position. based on work carried out by Frontier Economics.
Its report states that “past water harvesting has led to a decline in irrigation… putting pressure on the viability of major irrigation districts and the industries and communities they support.”
“Continued irrigator water harvesting (on-farm buyouts and projects) will add to the impacts already felt and undermine the ability of irrigator communities to plan for the future.”
Plibersek said, in an interview with the ABC, that it was “extraordinary that we have a Labor government using questionable modeling to join Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud”.
Victoria’s Water Minister, Harriet Shing, replied: “This is not party politics, and it is disappointing to see things phrased this way. We make no apologies for standing up for communities and environments of Victoria.”
But Plibersek has support from Jamie Pittock, of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. He said: “The Victorian Government can generally be relied upon to make decisions based on robust data. In the case of the Murray-Darling Basin, bizarrely, it has relied on shoddy consultant reports that exaggerate the socio-economic costs and ignore the benefits of water buybacks. »
The bill will be put to a vote in the Senate this year, and there will be arguments with MPs.
Assuming the law passes, the federal government can override Victoria and proceed with environmental water buybacks. But it will still face opposition from farmer and irrigator groups, as well as some local communities.
It would be difficult to find political observers who believe that Peter Dutton can win the next election, due by May 2025. But there is growing talk of the possibility that Labor, given its very slim majority, will find itself in a minority government. (Unlike a year ago, when everyone was talking about Labor’s prospects of increasing its majority.)
Albanese – a senior figure in the Gillard minority government – would like to avoid being outvoted at all costs. This would hamper the government’s flexibility in pursuing its agenda, involve constant negotiations with MPs from all sides, including the bolshie Greens, and encourage the Coalition to cause maximum disruption.
The challenge of staying out of the minority increases the importance of the “ground game” within Labor’s marginal constituencies. And that could make controversies over local issues — abandoned infrastructure projects or unpopular new ventures, including ugly transmission lines for renewable energy — potentially dangerous for the holders of these seats.
Michelle Grattan is a professor at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent for The conversationwhere this article first appeared.