This is a panicky government that is unable to perform the most basic task of selling of its policies. As a consequence, any chance of meaningful reform to end the over-allocation of the Murray-Darling Basin is unlikely.

Andrew Robb called it correctly during the election campaign, even if he was scoring a political point. This Government panics at the slightest pushback. Thus its sudden announcement yesterday of a parliamentary inquiry into the impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, coming as a few hotheads carry on like buffoons at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s consultation meetings.

Bear in mind that the Government doesn’t have a single seat affected by this, with the possible exception of Bendigo, which contains part of the Campaspe River. But clearly the Government has been rattled by Simon Birmingham’s canny demands for Tony Burke to participate in the consultations. Tony Burke shouldn’t be participating in the MDBA consultations — it’s an independent authority preparing advise to the Parliament — but the Government appears incapable of getting that message across.

Incidentally, it’s peculiar that the Opposition’s water spokesman Barnaby Joyce chose to be out of the country (he’s in Rome for the MacKillop theatricals) at the most important moment in the water debate in this country in recent years, but Birmingham has made sure Joyce hasn’t been missed.

The time for the Government to announce the Parliamentary inquiry was last week, before the release of the draft plan guide by the authority. But much more should have been done beforehand. In effect, the Government has allowed the MDBA to throw a solution out for debate without defining the problem. This is a consistent feature of Labor in Government, its failure to provide a basic narrative for its policies, which appear in the public space without any attempt to prepare voters by explaining what the problem is that the policy is designed to address.

It happened repeatedly under Kevin Rudd and it is happening under Julia Gillard. The Government should have been articulating the problems of unsustainable water allocation in the MDB — not just for the environment, but for communities downstream. This would have provided context for the MDBA guide.

None of this is particularly difficult. The magnitude of the cuts to water allocations needed to ensure the sustainability of the MDB — at least 30% —  have been known for a long time. The National Water Commission was discussing those figures last year. That irrigators and irrigated agriculture communities would be unhappy was predictable. But the Government is scrambling with process theatrics after the explosion of anger has occurred.

There’s no reason to think the Government’s handling of the Basin Plan will be any different to the way it handled the RSPT, or for that matter the CPRS — although at least it followed a process in developing the latter that allowed the nature of the problem to be articulated, via the Garnaut Report, before launching its response. The Government is open to a scare campaign on fresh food prices — far more so than the nonsensical line run by the Coalition on the mining tax – and the opportunities for backsliding are legion.

Labor’s only hope is that South Australian Liberals exercise enough sway in the Coalition to prevent the entire debate from being overtly politicised.

The only sensible thing about the parliamentary inquiry is the selection of the chair. Co-opting Tony Windsor might appear to hand inordinate power to an MP aligned with the interests of irrigators and regional towns, but when chairing inquiries into issues of deep interest to them, MPs tend to become much more careful and moderate in the positions they take.

Otherwise, it looks like the same sort of reactive fix that characterised much of the Rudd Government’s response when faced with vocal opposition to its other policies. It’s clear now that this wasn’t so much Kevin Rudd’s management style as Labor’s management style — and specifically NSW Labor’s style, which has survived into the era of a Victorian Labor PM. And it bodes poorly for the Prime Minister’s commitment to “walking the reform road every day.”

Reforming governments have to sell reform effectively, they have to convince voters of the merits of their case by establishing why there is a need for reform, and then showing what they intend to do about it. That’s doubly the case when confronted with a political opponent who is reflexively oppositional.

There’s a broader point here about simple political skills. Labor seems entirely ineffectual in basic political communication. Tony Abbott has delivered the Government shed loads of material to nail him as an unprincipled opportunist who routinely and repeatedly reverses his positions on critical national interest issues like climate change and our role in Afghanistan. At no point has Labor even looked like doing so. It is a key reason why Labor finds itself in minority government.

There’s no reason to think this will change. This mob looks on course to repeat all the mistakes of the Rudd years.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW