Historic commitment. Major breakthrough. Sweeping reforms. And, most of all, an end to the blame game. If only that meant we’d never have to hear the phrase “blame game” again.

Don’t be fooled by the COAG communiqué. Beneath its uneasy combination of rhetorical flourish and hardcore Bureaucratese is a simple message: Kevin Rudd bribed his way to a win, particularly on the Murray-Darling Basin.

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Nothing wrong with that – it’s a perfectly legitimate way to secure cooperation among different jurisdictions. But let’s not bother with this “fresh spirit of goodwill” rubbish that the Prime Minister and his State and Territory counterparts are peddling.

Amid much positive press coverage along the lines of “Rudd delivers”, Laura Tingle in the Fin was one of the few to nail how expensive yesterday’s meeting was, and point out how Rudd’s generosity is rather at odds with his fiscal hairy-chestedness everywhere else.

But a failure to achieve significant progress yesterday would have badly tarnished the Rudd brand. And that would’ve been a particularly poor look just before he headed off on an extensive foreign trip.

Rudd apparently nutted out a deal with John Brumby over dinner and then breakfast – how cosy – to overcome Victoria’s reluctance to sign up the Murray-Darling plan. It’s a deal entirely in Victoria’s favour — essentially a billion dollar bribe to the Victorian Government and irrigators to undertake basic infrastructure maintenance and upgrades to curb massive water losses through irrigation networks.

Only half of the saved water from this investment will be available for environmental flows – the rest will go to irrigators. And, as Greens Senator Rachel Siewert points out, much of the “lost” water currently goes back into the system anyway via groundwater, so the purported environmental flows coming from this handout may be significantly overstated.

Irrigators remain “furious” – apparently the natural state of irrigators – because the upgrades are linked to the provision of 75 gigaltitres of water a year to the evil cosmopolitans of Melbourne (who will doubtless waste it on drinking and other urban indulgences). But irrigators are getting a massive handout via capital works that should, if water was priced appropriately, be paid for by irrigators themselves to fully capture the value of the water they’re allowed to access.

And irrigators who have done the right thing and already undertaken their own investments to minimise water losses will have to watch lazy competitors who have failed to invest get the benefit of taxpayer-funded upgrades.

The deal also preserves the rights of states to allocate Murray-Darling water. Worse, existing water resource plans will be retained for another decade. Problem is, the river is in such an appalling state now because state governments and irrigators have worked hand-in-glove over the decades to massively over-allocate water. Yesterday won’t change that any time soon. A new and stronger Murray-Darling Basin Authority will bring greater transparency and rigour to the allocation process. But a politician – the relevant Commonwealth Minister – rather than an independent authority will still be the key decision-maker on both water allocation and investment.

While Greg Hunt has complained about the pace of reform and the Nationals have issued the predictable pro-irrigator press release, it is the Greens who have started picking apart the detail – such as it is – of the deal. Siewert has flagged amendments to the enabling legislation to address the politicised governance arrangements that the Government will establish for the new Authority. She also wants more detail on how the overall funding package will be allocated and prioritised.

But given that the need to make a success of COAG under Labor, any amendments that upset the states are unlikely to get a hearing. And when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin, it’s still not clear that the states are part of the solution rather than the problem.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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