Saturday, April 14, 2007

Party Politics in the ACT

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the ACT Labor government is currently considering the possibility of developing an indirect potable water recycling scheme for Canberra. The proposal has been championed by ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, who also happens to have the role of Water Minister.

The proposal had also received support from the Liberals and Greens, and thus it seemed unlikely to be the subject of a significant political scuffle.

However, in a surprise move this week, the ACT Attorney General, Simon Corbell, broke the apparent cardinal rule against breaching cabinet confidentiality and solidarity. Corbell’s ‘crime’ was simply to call publicly for more caution:

“I've realised there's a need for a more sceptical approach...I'm concerned that the recent water policy is a fait accompli...I think as a Government we do need to be more critical of what's being proposed...I am calling for more caution.”

The Canberra Times reported that Corbell “cited health concerns raised by Canberra Hospital infectious diseases physician Peter Collignon about drinking recycled sewage” and that he “called for a fresh Government inquiry into the issue, focusing on the risks of prescription drugs persisting in the water supply”.

One might think that this would be a perfectly reasonable and, in fact, prudent position to take, -especially given Collignon’s expression of concern. Absolute confidence that public health will be protected is vital for all planned (and unplanned!) indirect potable recycling schemes. If there is a lack of such confidence in the community, especially among decision makers, it needs to be addressed. If a lack of adequate caution is revealed, it must be corrected before any significant progress is made.

However, the response from Corbell’s ALP Party colleagues came fast and furious. The Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, John Hargreaves hit the roof, as reported by the Canberra Times:

Mr Hargreaves, said if Mr Corbell could not hold to the party line he should do "the honourable thing" and resign from cabinet. "His expression of disloyalty to the Chief Minister in recent times is unforgivable," Mr Hargreaves said. "I am seriously disappointed that the hitherto strong cabinet solidarity ... has been abused. I will not stand by and be silent when the integrity and leadership of Jon Stanhope is in question." Mr Hargreaves warned Mr Corbell any leadership aspirations he had were now crushed. "As long as the right wing [of the ALP] draws breath and I'm in the Parliament he will not be in the leadership or deputy leadership," he said.

Mr Hargreaves said ministers should raise such concerns in cabinet and then abide by cabinet's collective decision. "That was a complete and absolute breach of cabinet confidentiality and solidarity," he said of Mr Corbell's remarks. "It was a deliberate incursion into the portfolio responsibilities of the Chief Minister."

Corbell’s punishment was revealed today when it was reported that Stanhope had stripped Corbell of “his favourite” ministerial portfolio, Planning, which he had held for almost a decade.

However, it seems that not all ACT Labor members are quite so rash. Speaker Wayne Berry, responded saying "What Simon said in relation to water was sound judgment and it will widen the debate,".

I’m not na├»ve enough to not realise that ALP factional manoeuvring is at least partially to explain for this week’s ruckus. However, I am perhaps idealistic enough to think that open debate should be encouraged, rather than crushed. If a Planning Minister can’t engage in a public debate about water management and public safety, who can?

Clearly the loyal Mr Hargreaves was concerned about the message that Corbell’s comments would send to the community. But frankly, I think most people will be more concerned about the clear priority in which political solidarity has been placed above open dialogue about a controversial proposal and a stated need for caution.

Would it be unreasonable to expect that sustainable water management and protection of public health should be above party politics? Don’t answer that.

Perhaps the title of this post should have been ‘Party Politics (Caught) in the ACT’.

1 comment:

Stuart Khan said...

This from the ABC this morning:

ACT government spat over cabinet reshuffle continues

The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Wayne Berry has protested the removal of Simon Corbell as Planning Minister, saying the demotion disguises a fundamental shift in ACT government policy towards land development.

Mr Corbell last week voiced his concerned about the safety of a proposed water recycling plant, and was dismissed as Planning Minister on Friday.

Wayne Berry says the timing was convenient, and the real reason was due to the Minister's resistance to planning control being handed to land developers.

"Simon's paid the price. What I'm most appalled by is that Simon's copped a public flogging over some quite sensible remarks he made about water," Mr Berry said. "The real reason for this [removal] is there needed to be a change, if party policy was going to be reversed."

Mr Berry also warned of what lay ahead for the new Planning Minister, Andrew Barr.

"Andrew will toe the line otherwise he'll suffer the same fate that Simon suffered."

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