Bruce Hawker is a leading campaign manager with 30 years experience advising leaders in business and politics. As MD of Campaigns & Communications, Bruce manages crises and plans and executes communications campaigns.

Let a Hundred Dams Fill; Let a Hundred Ideas Float Around: Will Tony Abbott's Big Policy Idea Sink Without a Trace?

“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend” - Mao Zedong.

In 1956 Mao launched his “One Hundred Flowers” movement. Its stated purpose was to encourage more open debate in a regime which abhorred the idea of free thought. Unfortunately for Chinese liberals, the campaign took off just before the Hungarian uprising and after a short time this liberalisation campaign was abandoned. Those who had been naïve enough to think this represented a new era in the Chinese Communist Party and had spoken out were rounded up and shipped off to places where flowers never bloomed.  Mao later claimed that the purpose of the “One Hundred Flowers” movement was to “entice the snakes out of their caves”.

The recent revelation that the Abbott Opposition has produced a policy document of sorts proposing up to 100 dams across the country marks an interesting phase in Abbott’s policy development. Despite the fact that the document was the work of a Coalition Taskforce of Parliamentarians and had a foreword written by its chairman, Andrew Robb, it apparently has no official status. Tony Abbott has said that the document, which contains plans for $30 billion worth of dam projects, is just a discussion paper.  My guess is that the purpose in leaking it was almost certainly to test public reaction to the proposals contained in it and then to abandon or dramatically reduce its ambit if opinion is too negative. Its release at this point in the electoral cycle also served his purpose as it allows him to say that he is not, as the Government contends, a “policy free zone”.  So, let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.

The fact that the Opposition has gone down this path shows that they understand how incredibly contentious the construction of dams are in the communities where they are to be built. The remarkable ability of dams to unite in opposition conservative rural communities and environmentalists probably matches that of the anti-coal seam gas movement, which has also created an unlikely alliance of greenies and farmers. Abbott’s major challenge is to show Australians he has a  “big picture” vision for the country. This is essential if he is to be seen as a leader of any substance, rather than the negative conservative activist he has managed to paint himself as in his time in politics. However, there will be Coalition MPs around the nation lining up to say, “not in my backyard, Tony. Demonstrate your vision in some other electorate – preferably in another State”.

Abbott’s problem is that while the plan is essentially a rehash of numerous failed proposals from years gone by to harness the potential of the Top End, it also specifies projects to raise Warragamba Dam near Sydney as well as new ones in the Hunter Valley and Central Highlands of NSW and the Lachlan. The danger this paper poses is not lost on conservative politicians – particularly Bob Baldwin whose Hunter Valley seat of Paterson is a likely host to one of these planned dams. He went straight onto Twitter to assert “There will be no Tilligra (sic) Dam built in the Hunter”. This is a reference to the proposed Tillegra which was planned  for the Hunter but was abandoned after years of protests.

This is the story of dam proposals around the country. When, following years of drought, in 2006 the Beattie Government proposed a dam across the Mary River at Traveston Crossing near Gympie in South East Queensland, all hell broke loose. Now Gympie is hardly a heartland of leftist and environmental activism, in fact, it was once a “One Nation” stronghold. However, within a very short time a coalition of environmentalists, farmers, fishers, aboriginal groups and importantly,  politicians of all political colour,  was formed to oppose the dam. It brought the Queensland Labor Government into conflict with its federal cousins and finally, after six years of rancour, protest and legal action, the proposed dam was finally abandoned in November last year. It is little wonder therefore, that the last dam of any size to be built in Australia was in 1987 – 25 years ago. The list of conflicts around the construction of dams reads like the battle honours on a military banner – Lake Pedder, Gordon, Franklin, Traveston, Tillegra, the Daly and so on.

The Gillard Government and the Labor Party have a real opportunity now to run campaigns across the country – pointing to the dams listed in this “Discussion Paper” and reminding voters that an Abbott Government has one planned for their back yards. This is where the government needs to show it can match Abbott with effective field campaigns, just he has done over issues like the Carbon Tax and asylum seekers. I have a hunch though, that just like Mao’s “One Hundred Flowers” movement,  this “Let a Hundred Dams Fill” campaign will be a short lived venture into “big picture” thinking by Tony Abbott.



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