Becoming a Metagovernor: A Case Study of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority

28 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2014

See all articles by Paul Fawcett

Paul Fawcett

University of Canberra

Matthew Wood

University of Sheffield

Date Written: September 24, 2014


The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s most important river system. It is home to over two million people, covers 14% of the country’s landmass and is of national significance socially, culturally, economically and environmentally. The governance network surrounding the Basin is complex involving multiple levels of governments (Commonwealth, state and territory) as well as numerous non-state actors, including individuals and communities living in the Basin, industry groups and environmentalists. The past three to four decades have seen increased levels of intergovernmental cooperation and coordination as nearly all actors have recognised the need for concerted action in order to avoid potentially catastrophic, long-term and irreversible environmental damage within the Basin. The decision to create the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) in September 2008 represented another step towards increased cooperation as it was the first time in Australian history that a dedicated Agency had been created with an explicit mandate to develop an integrated water management plan at the Basin level. This paper tracks ebbs and flows in the extent to which the MDBA was able to secure the political legitimacy that it required in order to successfully oversee the development of this Plan from the MDBA’s establishment in September 2008 through to the Plan’s commencement in November 2012. We analyse the MDBA’s capacity to develop political legitimacy during this time, which we conceptualise in terms of the cognitive, moral, and pragmatic legitimacy that the Agency was able to achieve within the wider community. We also show how the MDBA learned to become an effective metagovernor by shaping, developing and mending its political legitimacy. Thus, we are able to track how the MDBA was able to learn from its past failures at metagovernance. This article hence provides the first systematic empirical analysis of how delegated agencies can become effective metagovernors through direct attempts to foster their political legitimacy. More broadly, we conclude that to become effective (and to effectively become) metagovernors, organisations require stakeholders within and beyond the immediate governance network to accept their decisions (on whatever grounds) as appropriate and justified – i.e. legitimate – whilst also recognising that achieving such a status is more likely to be provisional, transitory and ephemeral, rather than lengthy, enduring and permanent. This is increasingly relevant, we argue, in late-modern societies where trust in elected or non-elected authorities is increasingly challenged.

Keywords: Metagovernance; Political Legitimacy; Water Governance; Murray Darling Basin; Australia

Suggested Citation

Fawcett, Paul and Wood, Matthew, Becoming a Metagovernor: A Case Study of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (September 24, 2014). The Australian Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Sydney, 2014. Available at SSRN: or

Paul Fawcett (Contact Author)

University of Canberra ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601

Matthew Wood

University of Sheffield ( email )

17 Mappin Street
Sheffield, Sheffield S1 4DT
United Kingdom

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