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Coalition defends dam strategy

The opposition leader and his water and treasury spokesmen have all defended a Coalition draft plan identifying $30bn in potential dam developments nationwide.

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For a party that has been begging for an election ever since we had the last one, and insisting that it is ready to govern, some of the Coalition's policy ideas look decidedly underdone.

The latest leak – of a plan to build up to 100 dams across Australia and create a new foodbowl in the north – is the latest example of a thought bubble masquerading as a policy.

Previous serious studies have injected a note of caution into the grand patriotic dream. 

Both sides of politics have at times waxed lyrical about the potential of agricultural production in the north to help feed the booming population of Asia, and the attraction of the idea is obvious.

But in a curious reversal of their traditional ideological stances, Labor emphasises market-driven ways to open up the region and the Coalition talks about expensive big government intervention in building dams and providing new tax breaks and the like.

Previous serious studies have injected a note of caution into the grand patriotic dream.

The 2009 Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce found that although the north received huge amounts of rain, topography and high evaporation rates made it difficult to capture and store.

Rather than new dams, it proposed a mosaic ''of small-scale irrigation systems that have carefully combined arable land with available water'' and intensification of pastoral land, to boost food production. A ''national food plan'' green paper released last year made similar points.

Coalition MPs said those studies had been tainted by the presence of ''green environmentalists'' in the assessment teams, who were rabidly against all development and wanted to turn the nation into one big national park. Others said the studies hadn't included enough on-the-ground research.

Now the dream lives again - in a leaked discussion paper that we are told will soon be honed into a formal Coalition policy.

Theories abounded about whether the leak was sanctioned - to try to show off  ''the vision thing'', or was an attempt by those in the Coalition who are alarmed by the idea to kill it off before it is set in stone.

Whatever the motive, it showed the Coalition has been busy gathering information but appears to contain no information about why we should ignore previous warnings about the constraints on water storage in the north, or detailed information about where the new dams might be built (frontbencher Greg Hunt said there were in fact no direct proposals for dams in the policy that lists 100 possible new dams sites).

There is also no detailed costings about how much the federal government would pay, whether state governments would agree and how it would attract private co-investment.

Coalition frontbencher Eric Abetz conceded that ''hopefully by the election, we will have all that together for a definite plan to put to the Australian people''.

Hopefully. Definite plans really are a much better basis for voters' decisions.

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