For the casual observer, last week was political Send in the Clowns week: a series of progressively sillier and noisier stunts in parliament during which forests were felled for ammunition in an inconclusive and ultimately pointless poster war. But in fact, it was a week in which quite a lot happened.

Whatever else can be said about our beloved Prime Minister, he cannot be accused of laziness; you get the feeling that if you could just plug him into the power grid the entire energy crisis would be solved overnight. And what’s more he can do two, three, four or even more things at the same time.

Not only does he defy Lyndon Johnson’s stricture on Gerald Ford by walking and farting simultaneously; last week he also announced a breakthrough in the Murray-Darling saga and resumed his role as Asian statesman in his time off from the parliamentary vaudeville.

The real criticism has to be in the timing; because the media concentrated, inevitably, on the circus in Canberra, the government did not get the kudos it might have expected from its more constructive and thoughtful activities. But this should not detract from their importance.

Since John Howard’s Great Big Splash of early 2007 when he announced that he was assuming supreme power to save the Murray-Darling at a cost of $10 billion, there has been a lot of talk but very little action. Almost immediately Victoria announced that it would not allow its irrigation quotas to be traded away and in the face of this first murmur of opposition the Supremo went, as they say, to water. His then personal water boy, Malcolm Turnbull, hinted that compulsion could not be ruled out altogether, but he too folded in the face of National Party intransigence.

The change of government brought renewed and even more hairy-chested commitment to the basin, especially from Rudd’s minister Penny Wong, and eventually a few small tickles were allowed back into the system. But overall it appeared that the problem had been relegated to the too hard basket: there were just too many conflicts and complications economically, environmentally and above all politically.

Actually the issue is childishly simple: too much water has been taken out of the system and if it is to be saved, quite a lot will have to be put back. But the missing water has gone to support farms, towns, whole industries; getting it back will be divisive and disruptive. The process needs a big kick start and last week’s announcement may well have provided it.

It has certainly stirred up the states; New South Wales immediately moved to cap its own irrigation and threatened to join South Australia in a legal challenge to the Victorian ban, a somewhat bizarre double. But at the same time the Victorians opened a crack in the door suggesting that their hitherto inflexible position might be negotiable.

And the issue, of course, is now well and truly front and centre, where it belongs. Break out the champagne, or at least a glass or two of Murray-Darling special.

And then Rudd went to Singapore to reopen the matter of a new Asia-Pacific regional association which would cover defence and security in the region as well as trade and economic matters.

He first floated this hugely ambitious proposal last year and it was greeted with polite dismissal. Most of the countries concerned and Singapore in particular felt that the Asian institutions already in place, especially ASEAN, were adequate for their purposes, and if they weren’t there was always APEC, although that had been made unwieldy and less relevant by the United States insistence on incorporating the Latin and South American countries into the original concept.

But last week the reaction was somewhat different. Rudd’s diplomats led by Richard Woolcott have been working diligently behind the scenes, and with the Global Financial Crisis more intense and the latest belligerence from North Korea there was at least the beginning of a feeling that the idea might be worth considering. So Rudd was able to announce the calling of a non-political summit later this year, in which officials, academics and opinion makers could get together to discuss what he tactfully called “the future of our regional architecture for the 21st century.”

Another breakthrough in what was really a very good week for the indefatigable Ruddster. But compare and contrast Malcolm Turnbull, who once again finds himself in a limbo of compromise, confusion and obfuscation.

The Leader of the Opposition (or at least his bit of it) now says the coalition is ready to commit to Rudd’s emission reduction target of between 5 and 25 percent by 2020 — well, sort of, in principle, depending on what happens. This in itself should not be surprising, since it was also his policy back in 2007 and for a period thereafter. But lest he be accused of consistency, he firmly rejects Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme as a means of attaining it, although this too was his own policy.

Instead, he wants to talk about putting a kind of a sort of a something or other in place after we see what everyone else does. This, he preposterously claims, will give Australia a firm and unequivocal bipartisan commitment to take to the Copenhagen conference. In the meantime, of course, the National wing of the coalition which Turnbull nominally heads continues to reject anything and everything, with Barnaby Joyce proudly proclaiming that Australia will never have an ETS of any kind.

Nicholas Stern, whose report pushed climate change into the forefront of public debate back in 2007, said last week that if Copenhagen was to have any chance of success it was imperative that the big per capita emitters like Australia take a lead; only then would the developing polluters like China and India be persuaded to join in a truly international program for change.

Malcolm Turnbull, formerly Australia’s Minister for the Environment, will not endorse even the minimalist position which he himself once proposed. If he wasn’t so rich you’d have to think he was a dead set drongo.

Peter Fray

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