ACTIONS will speak louder than words when it comes to judging whether agriculture should remain a ministerial coupling with water after the next election, says new Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Anne Ruston.
Senator Ruston was promoted to be Barnaby Joyce’s Assistant Minister in the new Turnbull Coalition government ministry, sworn in on Monday in Canberra.
Moving the Water portfolio out of Environment and into Agriculture was one of the key outcomes of the new Coalition agreement which accompanied Malcolm Turnbull replacing Tony Abbott as Prime Minister last week.
The move was roundly welcomed by farming and irrigation stakeholders but Labor has already pledged to return Water to the Environment portfolio if they win next year’s election.
The Opposition believe that bureaucratic pairing delivers more balanced outcomes for the Murray Darling Basin Plan, especially environmental goals, than having Mr Joyce and the National party driving the national water reform agenda to safeguard farming interests.
However, Mr Turnbull moved to appease some of those fears – including within his own party – by appointing Senator Ruston who is a South Australian Liberal Senator with extensive lived experience as an irrigator in the Basin and working with water policy.
In promoting Senator Ruston, Mr Turnbull overlooked up and coming Liberal rural members like Victorian MP Dan Tehan and NSW MP Angus Taylor who have strong agricultural credentials.
But Senator Ruston would not be drawn on any comparison, saying she’d worked in the water reform area for about 25 years and was one of the authors of the SA Liberal party’s water reform policy, leading up to the 1993 election.
“Water reform is not something that’s new to me,” she said.
“Perhaps my long standing background in water reform is the reason why the Prime Minister chose me.
“The other thing is I’ve been Chair of the (Senate) Standing Committee on Environment and Communications and of course up until recently water sat in the Environment portfolio.”
Senator Ruston said her goal now is to try and impress voters, who will assess the Turnbull government’s agricultural and environmental credentials by implementing the Basin Plan’s time, cost and water delivery targets, as promised.
“I think the most important thing for the minister and me as the assistant minister to do is to prove that agriculture is the right place for water to reside and the best way we can do that is to get out and deliver the targets that have been set for us, over the next 12 months because we’ll be judged on that, at the next election,” she said.
“Getting on with the job and proving that agriculture is the right place for water - by our actions and outcomes – will deliver a far better result than having a slanging match about where it should reside.
“The most important thing we can do is actually deliver the Basin Plan the way we said were going to, from a water resources perspective.”
Last week, South Australian rural Liberal MP Tony Pasin expressed concerns about the National party holding the water portfolio but Senator Ruston said she didn’t hold the same fears.
“I didn’t have any concern when water went into agriculture because I thought it was a natural fit,” she said.
“When the Basin Plan was being established there were quite a lot of environmental imperatives that needed to be dealt with but I think the plan now protects the environment.
“Clear Sustainable Diversion Limits are in place and we have to deliver these targets no matter what.
“The framework’s already there to protect the environment so I think the shift from environment back to agriculture recognises we can now start looking at maximising the productive outcomes with our water.
“We talk about wanting to be the food bowl of the world and agriculture being such a big part of our future existence.
“If that’s the case, we have to start putting policies in place and doing things which recognise that.
“I think the move of water to agriculture is very positive for our irrigators and very positive for rural communities.”
Tasmanian Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck was Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture to Barnaby Joyce in the Abbott ministry and mostly held responsibility for fisheries and forestry.
However, Senator Colbeck was elevated by Mr Turnbull to become the new Minister for Tourism and International Education and Andrew Robb’s Assistant Minister for Trade and Investment.
On Monday, Senator Ruston said she had not yet met with Mr Joyce to work out what her exact new responsibilities would be in the new portfolio.
However, she said she would be lobbying Mr Joyce “as hard as I can” to continue working in the horticulture and viticulture space where she’s had a long running association as an irrigator in the SA Riverland region and continues to.
“I will do whatever is required and am really happy to work in any part of the agriculture sector,” she said.
Senator Ruston said the opposition’s comments about water management practices of irrigation communities, in relation to the Basin Plan, were “often made for political reasons”.
But she said others had to recognise that “our irrigators have been such responsible people in this whole process”.
“In South Australia alone every single drop of water that has been returned to the environment through this process so far has come from irrigators in one way shape or form,” she said.
“Now they’ve played their role, they’ve done the job and I think it’s time for us to recognise that they have been responsible and allow them now to have some certainty and some stability back in what they’re doing.
“River communities over the last three or four years have lived in a great state of uncertainty.
“If we return certainty to these communities, we’d been doing them all a great favour but also the economy of this country.
“I don’t think the Labor party is actually all that against irrigators but it probably suits their end to make some environmentally supportive comments for their political futures.”