MALCOLM Turnbull’s biggest gesture towards Australian farmers would be to remove the bureaucratic barrages and let Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce steam ahead with his portfolio aspirations, leading into the next election.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s regime suffered ongoing accusations and griping about excessively tight central administrative controls, coupled with an inability to read the political tea-leaves and make timely decisions, including on agriculture policy.
A lot of that blame has been pointed at the former leader’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin in forcibly sidelining the views of elected members of parliament, to reverse Mr Abbott’s fading grip on the Liberal leadership.
The earliest example of that politically motivated micro-management was the largely unexplained and completely needless dumping of Andrew Metcalfe as Agriculture Department Secretary, shortly after the 2013 election.
Mr Metcalfe’s brutal removal wasn’t driven by his performance in the agriculture role, as you’d expect a Liberal administration to primarily consider when assessing the credentials of key personnel.
It also involved no consultation with Mr Joyce or the many industry leaders who had applauded the former Secretary’s strong work in his first year, pushing and polishing farm-policy priorities.
That petty sacking also produced another high-level headache when Abbott power-brokers shifted Dr Paul Grimes out of the Environment Department, to be Agriculture Department Secretary.
That move created a strained, awkward pairing of Dr Grimes and Mr Joyce which subsequently stymied progress, with the Secretary seemingly wanting to define his role more by the policy initiatives he could block, rather than enhance.
Other bemusing and contradictory moves by the Abbott administration included the protracted delay in releasing the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper - which eventually landed in July, six months late.
It seemed the White Paper morphed into a political vehicle - designed to deliver rolling “positive” news stories to boost Mr Abbott’s flagging public profile, after his leadership was placed on notice earlier this year - rather than genuine, strategic policy vision.
Despite that frustration, it was heartening to see the Prime Minister out in regional Australia at the odd dairy, paddock or saleyard, talking up agriculture’s bright future while rightly describing it as a modern industry with a bright economic outlook.
However, Tony Abbott also raised high hopes in the bush by promising to lift Australian agriculture’s standing as a key national key economic pillar - a commitment made by the Coalition, from opposition.
Mr Turnbull must now be just as conscious of those expectations in his cabinet deliberations and give Barnaby Joyce the freedom to push forward and make things happen, including making his own mistakes.
The White Paper is meant to deliver policy stimulus for a transitioning economy and to enhance other key economic moves by the Coalition, like signing free trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea.
If Mr Turnbull shares the same values and faith in the farm-sector’s economic potential, he should now give Mr Joyce every tool he needs to re-vitalise those goals and not stand in the way.
An early gesture of good will and mutual respect by the new Prime Minister was agreeing to shift water policy out of the Environment portfolio and into Agriculture, in the new Coalition agreement.
“Water is the lifeblood of rural Australian communities and economies and a critical input for agriculture,” Mr Joyce said in taking on his new title and beefed-up ministry.
“Our water resources must be managed sustainably and with a long-term vision.”
Mr Turnbull and Environment Minister Greg Hunt have both said the move of water into agriculture won’t hinder the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s water reforms, which are now largely complete.
They’ve also said the goal and imperative remains, as has Mr Joyce, to achieve the Basin Plan’s triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental benefits.
Mr Joyce is also focused on now delivering the White Paper’s hard fought outcomes like the $500 million water infrastructure fund to build dams and boost economic activity around farming, in regional centres.
Opportunity should also not be lost to give the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder greater bureaucratic flexibility around water trading, to support farmers while preserving environmental goals, whether those powers remain in the Environment Department or not.
Mr Turnbull may be the nation’s latest political messiah, but he would not want to walk away on water – in the deal he made with the Nationals, contained in the side-letter to the new Coalition agreement where the macro story was all based on trust.
The leader must ensure his word remains water-tight with Mr Joyce and subsequently farmers.
And as a guide, here are his comments, made shortly after becoming Prime Minister, when debating the issue of water policy transferring from Environment into the Agriculture Department, which Labor has already pledged to reverse.
“Of course the problem with the Labor Party is that they regard every single farmer, every single irrigator, as an environmental vandal. The sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin is one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government. It was nearly wrecked by the Labor Party in government but fortunately survived and is now back in good hands. We care about water, we know about water and we know that the best environmentalists in Australia, the ones that understand the water and the country better than anyone, are Australia's farmers.”