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Raised voices over the water

THE Federal Government's decision to buy the rights to 240 billion litres of water from the Twynam Agricultural Group sounds like a big step towards reducing the burden which irrigation places on the Murray-Darling basin. Certainly it is a major advance on what had been achieved until now, but a lot more remains to be done.

In particular, NSW is carrying the main burden of relinquishing water allocations to the Federal Government. Other states along the river system should now start to share the weight of solving the problem.

The Howard government, though it attempted to bring the problem under single control in a grand $10 billion gesture, did not manage actually to buy back any water rights. In its relatively short time in office before yesterday, the Rudd Government had bought back the rights to 57 billion litres. Yesterday's single purchase increases that total fivefold. Even so, it is dwarfed by the total water use across the basin, which according to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission amounts to nearly 13,000 gigalitres a year.

One positive sign in particular is that the Twynam Agricultural Group has realised that irrigation cropping is no longer viable for the most part on its properties. Though it has the rights to 240 gigalitres, actual flows meant that it was regularly being allocated far less than that. It has changed its emphasis from irrigated crops to winter cereals, and as a result has been willing to sell most of its water rights. As a large agricultural company it is perhaps easier for it to devise and manage such a transition, but as climate change alters rainfall patterns irrevocably, so that drought becomes normal, a similar change will have to occur on farms large and small throughout the basin.

As it has been virtually throughout Australia's history since European settlement, however, policy over this latest phase of managing the waters of the Murray-Darling has been bedevilled by interstate rivalries. Virtually all the water rights bought back have been from NSW. This state has now said it will not agree to further sales until Victoria in particular agrees to co-operate with the national program.

The point is reasonable, and Victoria's ban on sending its water for use outside its borders must be revised and quickly. The longer our politicians, state and federal, bicker over who goes first or who has done more, the more damage climate change can be expected to do, and the more farmers will be left to adapt unaided to the drought which is becoming the region's normal state.

Canberra's iron chancellor

MORE than curiosity lies in the case of the senior diplomat, Hugh Borrowman, abruptly switched from a posting as ambassador to Germany to one as envoy to Sweden on the intervention of Kevin Rudd. The Prime Minister's stated reason simply doesn't wash. The case suggests if not some personal animus going back to days as fellow students and diplomats, then a clash of personalities or views during Mr Borrowman's senior previous position in the international division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The present Australian ambassador in Berlin, Ian Kemish, jumped from the same position three years ago. Mr Borrowman held down the job since then, serving under two prime ministers. So it is not as if a promotion to a major ambassadorship would be out of line. Indeed, secondment to the PM's Department has long been a fast-track to advancement for Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officers.

Mr Rudd suggested on Tuesday it was a lack of proficiency in German that was the reason. But it turns out Mr Borrowman "has qualifications in German", according to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, as well as in Chinese, French and Swedish. Whether this is different from "speaks German" - an accomplishment of Mr Kemish, according to the department's website - is unclear.

And does it matter? As the Herald's diplomatic editor, Cynthia Banham, has pointed out, only four of the seven "language-designated" head of mission positions are currently filled by speakers of the host-country language. Most diplomats can't get their heads around more than one or two foreign languages; their careers can't be limited to places where those are spoken.

As much as Mr Smith dissembles, it reeks of micro-management by the hyperactive Prime Minister. While he might take more than usual interest in postings of his former diplomatic colleagues, it would be wise to refrain from interfering, except for the handful of very senior ambassadorships involving critical relationships or job-swaps with department heads back in Canberra.

Now there's a reported reluctance of qualified diplomats to fill the job vacated by Mr Borrowman. Who would want to work under Mr Rudd's humiliating close supervision, with the risk of a slap-down at the end? Combine this with the high burn-out rate among Mr Rudd's personal staff, from his round-the-clock demands, and you have a Prime Minister surrounded by acquiescent advisers and very young aides who are the only ones able and willing to put up with the frenetic pace. It is a situation that is dangerous for Mr Rudd himself.

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