The Glenn Milne-Peter Costello show ran for some years without, sadly, ever making it onto Broadway. Milne, however, may now have a new partner in the Opposition’s ten-point font Environment spokesman Greg Hunt. Today’s attack on John Brumby and Kevin Rudd over the Murray-Darling Basin deal is the second Glen’n’Greg item in a fortnight.

Not that Milne isn’t happy to work with other Coalition frontbenchers. He’s done fine work with Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis so far. Not to mention his beat-up about plastic bags aimed at Peter Garrett a couple of weeks ago, although Woolies and Coles seemed to be the prime sources for that effort.

But in Hunt one suspects Milne thinks he’s found a rising star.

Milne carries Hunt’s quite serious allegation that Victoria deliberately withheld agreement on the Murray-Darling Basin in 2007 for political purposes. The basis for the allegation is that the $1 billion promised to Victoria as part of last week’s deal is not “new money”. But the argument is entirely wrong, for two reasons.

The “new money” argument is a diversion. Glen’n’Greg either don’t understand Commonwealth budget practices or are hoping their readers don’t. The $10b MDB plan originally crafted by Howard was over ten years. There is no $10 billion dollar bank account labelled “MDB” that Penny Wong writes cheques from. All that exists is an allocation over forward estimates and into out-years.

Most of the money that will be spent – and it is rare indeed for any Government program to ever spend exactly what has been allocated – has yet to even be raised from taxpayers. And under the original Howard plan, $3b of this allocation was to be directed to fixing off-farm irrigation, with co-contributions of $750m from irrigators. The specific projects were to be selected by the water minister from proposals by industry groups and irrigators.

But in one deal between Rudd and Brumby last week, $1b of that was handed straight to Victoria to fund its Food Bowl Modernisation project. No independent assessment of projects, and no co-contributions from irrigators. This is in effect a reward for decades of Victorian governments and irrigators failing to invest in their own infrastructure. And the project also includes the allocation of 75 gigalitres a year to Melbourne via the Sugarloaf pipeline. You can bet anything you like that the Coalition would never have funded that.

The more significant reason why Milne and Hunt are wrong is that the Brumby-Rudd deal preserves for the States – who are the very entities that have presided over the long-term degradation of the Murray-Darling – a seat at the table when decisions are made about the future of the river system. While the Commonwealth water minister has final responsibility for decisions, the States now have a capacity to appeal and significantly delay water allocation decisions they object to. Under the Howard proposal, the States would have referred their powers over the basin to the Commonwealth, removing at a stroke the veto power States have exercised over the MDB reform agenda.

If the Brumby-Rudd deal had preserved the key elements of the Howard plan, even if for political purposes, that would represent a major step toward a sustainable future for the MDB. But under Labor’s “cooperative Federalism” approach, there remain serious concerns about whether the river can be saved. That’s the real problem with what happened last week.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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