Why is Labor the preferred party on water resources?

Today’s ACNielsen poll in the Fairfax broadsheets has a ‘best party to handle’ issues question I don’t think I have seen before, and which could be just as worrying to the Coalition as the 58%-42% two-party preferred result. This was which party is best to handle water resources, which Labor led 48% to 34%. That’s well under the 40% who said in 2004 that they tend to identify with the Liberals, and close to the Coalition’s core support of around one-third of voters.

Purely on an issue basis, it’s hard to see why Labor has a strong lead on this. Water has little history as a federal issue, and not much more (at least in recent times) as a state issue, so there are not strong party stereotypes to fall back on, as there are on issues such as health, education, and tax. But if you had to think about it in the context of the governments who have been responsible for water, ie the state Labor governments, you’d have to say that their long-term performance (except perhaps in WA) is in the poor to mediocre range. In Victoria, the Bracks government’s strategy seems to be limited to killing off gardens and shorter showers. When Newspoll asked Victorians during last year’s election which party would better handle water management, Labor was nevertheless ahead, but only 38% to 32%.

As Malcolm Turnbull theatrically told Parliament last week, thanks to severe domestic water restrictions bucket back is afflicting pensioners as they carry water from their showers to their gardens. You don’t have to be raving right-winger to think we can do much better than this policywise (some ideas today from Professor Q). And whatever the merits of the PM’s $10 billion plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, it had been more prominently in the news than any suggestions from the Labor side.

It’s hard to tell without repeat polling, but this result could just be the flow on from the enthusiasm surrounding Kevin Rudd – that voters don’t actually have real views on which party federally would best handle water, but they are feeling positive toward Labor at the moment and so when asked they say ‘Labor’ rather than say nothing. Another possibility is that this is a case of issue association – that because water seems related to the environment, and Labor is way ahead on that (60% to 26%), Labor seems the more obvious answer to this question. Unless the drought breaks between now and the election, the Coalition had better hope this poll does not reflect solid opinion.

23 thoughts on “Why is Labor the preferred party on water resources?

  1. I think the two reasons you mentioned make a lot of sense. There are a few others I can think of. Water is a utility and Labor is often viewed as the better party to handle electricity and gas despite the featherbedding and over-investment they presided over in the 1980s. The Coalition is also often associated with privatisation (obviously bad for an essential good like water) and appeasing farmers, who are often blamed for metropolitan water shortages.

    I was shocked when Andrew Bolt said on Insiders that he, too, hauled buckets out to the garden (herein follows my rant). Hello, what planet am I on? Why are we living like Sub-Saharan villagers? If the price of water were to double, it would allow cost recovery for recycling and desalination options. The argument often used against the latter is that it increases greenhouse gases. But we are pumping masses of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by using air-conditioners and smelting aluminium for export. If water is so essential that it cannot be privatised, why at least can’t we use electricity to make more of it?


  2. Funny thing is, if Labor were to adopt John Quiggin’s ideas for allowing households to buy water from farmers (as I hope they will), they’d be much more in line with the economic rationalists. What would Milton Friedman have preferred: federalising water, or letting the market do what it does best?


  3. Rajat – Though water privatisation has barely been mentioned, you are right that Labor is seen as best on historically publicly provided services, which could explain why in the Victorian poll the Liberals, who were advocating a new dam and a desalination plant, were still seen as worse for water management than Labor offering dead gardens and short showers. Another case of political stereotypes beating policy reality.


  4. The view from NSW could be different, but in Melbourne one could have got the impression that Howard was driving the Snowy privatisation.


  5. How exactly is the market going to stop dead gardens and short showers, and what kind of productivity gains can we expect from long showers and lush gardens.

    The market can’t make water magically appear. The market can put water to where it is most valued (which may not necessarily be where it’s best utilised). I doubt that ensuring Cubby Station sells water rights to a bunch of whinging city folk with dead roses will accomplish anything. Sydney is deluged with water on a regular basis but nobody has the sense to put in a rain water tank?

    At what point did we come to the non-sensical notion that keeping your BMW clean was more important than industry or clean drinking water?


  6. Markets can’t make it rain, of course, but they can induce greater supply of available resources (eg desalination, piping water around) and encourage people to make more optimal use of water – water saving technologies in the home, less thirsty plants in the garden, more efficient processes in industry and agriculture etc.

    Rainwater tanks are now a booming business, but historically if the government is giving you water virtually for free why bother?

    The point here is not that rationing might not sometimes be necessary when there are sudden shortages that were not reasonably foreseeable. But in cities like Melbourne and Sydney there has been considerable population growth and for years people have been telling us that we will have less rainfall in future. Yet governments have dithered (and continue to dither) because they have not allowed good economic institutions to operate in water supply.


  7. “Why are we living like Sub-Saharan villagers?” and
    “Rainwater tanks are now a booming business, but historically if the government is giving you water virtually for free why bother?”

    You get free water because, historically, it was a public health issue. Not a lush garden issue. I think that’s been forgotten in this ridiculous debate.

    When you turn on the tap and have no potable water to drink, feel free to rant. When all you have to whine about is a dead lawn, feel free to wallow in hypocrisy in private and thank the stars that your only household water supply isn’t *just* a rainwater tank somewhere west of Dubbo or a rusty soviet-era hand pump fed from a sewage drain (I see your hyperbole and raise you).

    We’ve had the great “bucket back” lament from federal Liberal (won’t someone think of the pensioners?). It’s bollocks. Market forces aren’t the only thing that will stop the kind of water stupidity tolerate without a blink. We have to bite the bullet and put our dodgy water supplies in perspective i.e.

    – Free or near free water only for drinking and bathing.
    – Grey water and rainwater for gardens and washing the car and the other optional activities.
    – Make it permanent.

    Commie plot to restrict your freedom loving roses or an attempt to make sure you’re alive to lament their passing? You decide. The weather will end up a far more brutal dictator than any we have conjured up ourselves.

    Pricing water so high that it makes a desalination plant cost effective is compounding the problem and punishing those in society who can least afford it. They will end up subsidising Toorak gardens while struggling to pay for a bit of tap water. We end up chasing our tails in an endless spiral of power generation, carbon dioxide production and maybe even less rainfall as a consequence of our wasteful, wilfull stupidity and obsession with outward appearance (can’t let the neighbours see our weedy, dead garden now can we. What will they think?).

    It’s high time that the old conservative maxim of “living within your means” when applied to the family unit was expanded to Australian society. There is only so much water to go around, so use it wisely.


  8. Without tackling all of your arguments, David, I would just like to inject some figures (and hence hopefully proportion) into the debate. The current variable price of water is something like $1 per thousand litres (kL) – give or take across different States. The variable price of water is also only a fraction (half?) the average householder’s total water bill. If the price of water were raised to $2/kL to allow cost recovery for desal, it would not have much impact on those people who only used water for what you regard as appropriate purposes (drinking and washing). After all, how many litres can you drink or wash with, if you stick to 3 minute showers? However, such a price increase would be quite significant for those maintaining lawns and water-hungry gardens. In fact, price increases are exactly what is necessary to avoid the (current) subsidisation of Toorak gardens. The advantage of such an approach is that water-curbing measures would then be voluntary rather than require regulation and enforcement.


  9. Rajat,

    To make it fair, we should be apportioning every househould a “free” allocation of water based on head count. Desalination needs to be avoided (or made a last resort). It is far too energy intensive, let alone expensive.


  10. David, I’ve nothing against the idea of a basic free water allocation to each household. The issue then is what becomes the price for consumption above that allocation. That price should reflect the marginal cost of procuring additional water (or reducing demand) by the cheapest means available. Let’s say that happens to be desalination. If households collectively consume sufficient water beyond the free allocation, that indicates that consumers would value the development of a desal plant. If you are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, there is nothing stopping you putting a properly-determined (God knows how you do that) carbon price on the energy consumed by the desal plant. But if consumers are still willing to pay for more water, why deny them that?



    David, please explain why the stuff “industry” makes is more important than the psychic benefits that people attain from a nice garden to gaze at or a nice lawn to play on. What is the point of industry if not to produce things that people value? And if people just happen to value roses more than widgets, what is wrong with their valuation? And why is yours superior?

    You are like the white man who advises the natives lying on a beach in some island paradise that they should stop being so lazy, get up and and go and get a job … so that they could earn more money … so that they could afford to take a holiday and lie on the beach!


    PS: If you’re worried about equity, please consider how many poor people currently have swimming pools. Large lawns and pools are generally the preserve of the rich. Accordingly, my guess is that the underpricing of water may well be regressive. (But even if it were progressive, there are far better ways to address equity than through water subsidies (and associated restrictions).


  12. Rajat wrote:
    “If you are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, there is nothing stopping you putting a properly-determined (God knows how you do that) carbon price on the energy consumed by the desal plant. But if consumers are still willing to pay for more water, why deny them that?”

    I’d agree that pricing carbon into the desalination debate is near impossible at the moment. The point about pricing of water in a crisis is that you have to make sure your consumers of “extra” water don’t affect the consumers of necessary water. We’ve seen the kerfuffle in the woefully managed water resources of NSW (major labor party stuffup) where farmers were sold water rights to water that simply didn’t exist. You end up with stupidity like local councils draining their town supply because the water is committed elsewhere. The whole “water goes to the highest bidder” market philosphy is absolutely doomed to fail with a limited resource like rain water in the driest continent on earth. Somebody will miss out and the consequences are much higher than missing out on a pair of shoes on sale or the last red Commodore on the lot.

    Desalination changes the equation a bit, but it’s not like electricity – you can’t just shunt it around to whoever bought it, not without massive investment.


  13. Good points by Tom, though I doubt that water subsidies are regressive. I note that David totally misunderstood the point about swimming pools.

    I’m amazed the debate has got this far about a simple price ceiling and the obvious consequences (under-supply & over-demand). The water mispricing will be used as a simple example of the laws of economics for first year students soon.


  14. John Humphreys wrote:
    “Good points by Tom, though I doubt that water subsidies are regressive. I note that David totally misunderstood the point about swimming pools.”

    No I didn’t – the point was that the arguments will come thick and fast about how “realistic” pricing of water won’t hurt the poor (swimming pool or not) when it’s obvious that those with less to spend will end up with a disproportionate burden of costs compared to income. Water is not a simple economic example – there are social justice, public health and bio security implications that go far beyond any simplistic notions of unit pricing.


  15. Fairly optomistic or deluded post Andrew.
    Neither party can fix Australia’s water problems. Science or population decrease might provide the answer for a while.
    As the amount of moisture in the global atmosphere increases there could well be an increase in precipitation in Southern Australia. This was what was predicted by geographers in the 1980s, that Adelaide and Perth would become drier and Sydney and Melbourne would become more tropical and moist. However, when the poles really start to melt over the next decade or two there will be no shortage of water in all Australian cities.
    Probably the best thing to do is to buy a yacht, semi-automatic weapons and choose a relatively sheltered harbour. Breed a lot if you want your genes to survive and possibly when world’s population fluctuates around 12-14 billion (think about it, it will happen and possibly during your lifetime) and war and other disasters reduce that to a billion or two, some remnants of your DNA may be carries through to what remains.
    This is a long term vision that many of today’s politicians are lacking due to their immediate material concerns and lack of perception, or egotistical nihlism.

    In the meantime, I suggest you all for a spot unit pricing and a beer, eh?!


  16. Also, many nuclear powerstations are near water for reasons of cooling, if they start flooding there could be major catastrophes.
    Without passing judgement on nuclear power, no one knows what the global environmental effect of mass nuclear power will be apart from increased radiation toxicity. It could have serious consequences that are not yet fathomable.



    In trying to explain why water should be used for widgets rather than roses, David Rubie said: “They [industry] are important consumers of water – the irrigators are using the water for productive purposes (you know – making businesses, employing people, all that sort of right wing stuff).”

    and: “The water debate is being framed in terms of


  18. A little unusually, I agree pretty much entirely with Andrew on this one, both in his analysis of why Labor is winning and in the view that we need more market-oriented approaches.

    To keep things interesting, let me observe that, if we hadn’t gone for naive property-rights solutions in the 1990s, turning restricted (and sometimes unused) irrigation licenses into permanent water rights on a 1-1 basis, our current problems would be a lot easier to use.


  19. My suggestion as to why those polled seemed to prefer Labor when it comes to water policy is related purely to what I have observed here in SA and assumes that the perception of SA voters may somehow be included in the results and/or that those polled in other states may be reacting similarly to the South Australians.
    And the suggestion is that, rightly or wrongly, accurately or not, people here in SA think that the SA Labor govt. has handled the water issue well.
    Leafletting and doorknocking in the Riverland and another region in the last state election I met many many people who thought the Labor government was doing a very good job re water.
    Perhaps [?] NSW and Vic. people feel the same way?


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