Brumby To The Bush: Stop Lying

The Age

Wednesday June 4, 2008

David Rood and Adam Morton

PREMIER John Brumby has lashed out at opponents of the Government's plans to drought-proof the state, accusing them of lying about the controversial $750 million pipeline from northern Victoria to Melbourne.

As hundreds of protesters yesterday converged on Parliament House from as far away as Mildura to demonstrate against the north-south pipeline, Mr Brumby branded the protest leaders as liars.

"A number of the claims that Plug the Pipe people are making at this rally are just not true. They are lies and they know them to be," Mr Brumby said.

Vowing to press ahead with the scheme to improve irrigation works in the north and pipe some of the saved water to Melbourne, Mr Brumby said the protesters were not representative of people across regional Victoria.

Plug the Pipe leader Mike Dalmau hit back last night, saying Mr Brumby was resorting to abuse because he could not counter the protesters' argument that the Government was planning to steal water from the already parched north to flush down the toilets of Melbourne.

"When people call people names like that, they have lost the argument on fact and reason," Mr Dalmau told The Age. "But we have come to expect that from him."

The flare-up between Mr Brumby and protesters will reinforce concerns among Labor insiders that the Premier's personality and policies are harming the Government's standing in rural and regional areas.

He is credited with masterminding Labor's win-back-the-bush strategy, which helped Steve Bracks take government from Jeff Kennett in 1999.

But since becoming Premier nearly a year ago, Mr Brumby has faced numerous protests over his water plans, including the north-south pipeline and the $3 billion desalination plant near Wonthaggi.

The Government says its plan to spend $1 billion upgrading the ageing and leaking Goulburn irrigation system will save 225 gigalitres of water a year, which it says will be shared equally between irrigators, the river system and Melbourne consumers.

Protesters dispute the water savings estimates and accuse the Government of planning to "steal" their water.

Mr Brumby yesterday said the protesters were making "bizarre" claims that the project would means less water for the region.

"Are those who oppose it (the pipeline) really saying that for the investment of $2 billion (including a promised $1 billion from the Federal Government) there will be no water savings?"

Mr Brumby pointed to a pro-pipeline newspaper advertisement taken out yesterday by the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, trucking company Linfox, dairy farmers, unions and dozens of other groups, saying it represented the views of hundreds of thousands of Victorians.

He said a meeting with regional mayors in Ballarat yesterday had expressed "near unanimous" support for the project, describing it as a visionary plan to drought-proof the state.

The Premier's attack comes after Energy Minister Peter Batchelor in February called anti-pipeline protesters "ugly, ugly people" when they disrupted Parliament, and Water Minister Tim Holding accused some pipeline opponents of making "quasi-terrorist threats".

Plug the Pipe's Mr Dalmau last night vowed to continue the fight, saying the idea of taking water from an irrigation system already in crisis was crazy. He accused Mr Brumby of running away to Ballarat to avoid facing the protesters.

Police estimated 600 vehicles, including buses that left Mildura at 2.30am, stopped traffic for three blocks around Parliament House during yesterday's protest.

The Coalition sought to exploit the protest, handing out anti-pipeline pamphlets to commuters at Melbourne train stations yesterday morning.

Liberal leader Ted Baillieu and Nationals leader Peter Ryan addressed the lunchtime rally. Using a mock-up coffin marked "rural towns" as a lectern, Mr Baillieu said the pipeline was the Government's "panicked solution" after its failure to secure Melbourne's water supply.

"This pipeline is a breach of so many commitments, it's a breach of common sense, it's a dumb idea and it should be plugged," Mr Baillieu said.

Mr Ryan said the Coalition supported the Government plan to improve irrigation and modernise the "food bowl" region, but asked: "Since when has it been Government policy that if you're going to make a decent investment in country Victoria, Melbourne's got to get its slice?"

Farmer Eril Rathjen, of Colbinabbin in north-central Victoria, described the project as an "economic travesty", saying the Government should know piping water from the north was not the answer to Melbourne's water shortage. "By robbing farmers of their water security, you are tearing out the hearts of people's livelihoods, you are destroying confidence in the future of their businesses," she said.

In a fiery parliamentary committee hearing that coincided with the rally, Mr Holding faced questioning from Coalition MPs about whether the projected water savings could be delivered during a drought. Mr Holding said he "unambiguously" stood by the projections, and the project would be delivered on budget and on time from 2010.

? Protesting farmers pipe up PAGE 2

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© 2008 The Age

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