IRRIGATORS have criticised the new Turnbull government’s move to split administrative responsibilities for critical aspects of water management between the Agriculture and Environment portfolios.
The new Coalition agreement signed-off by Malcolm Turnbull and Nationals' leader Warren Truss last week saw Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce handed greater powers over water management.
“We've also agreed to transfer responsibility for the water policy outcomes of the Department of the Environment and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to the agricultural portfolio,” Mr Truss said last week.
Mr Joyce was sworn in on Monday as the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources with SA Liberal Senator Anne Ruston appointed his Assistant Minister.
Mr Joyce and Senator Ruston remain locked in negotiations over who will hold various portfolio responsibilities including fisheries and forestry previously held by Tasmanian Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck as the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture.
Following the ministerial swearing in ceremony, Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove released the updated Administrative Arrangements Order outlining portfolio responsibilities.
That document shows the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has gained the addition of water policy and resources, as promised.
But the National Irrigators Council has objected to Environment Minister Greg Hunt retaining specific powers under the Water Act 2007.
The Orders show environmental water use and resources relating to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) and part six of the Water Act 2007 relating to environmental water use, have been added to Mr Hunt’s Department.
Mr Joyce said under the Coalition agreement water is to be transferred from Environment to Agriculture and “not the National party”.
“Malcolm Turnbull will honour that agreement,” he said.
A spokesperson for Mr Hunt told Fairfax Media the new Administrative Arrangement Orders were a matter for the Prime Minister.
However, the spokesperson said they also noted that last Friday, the CEWH indicated that 20 billion litres of water would be made available to farmers in the Southern Basin from their holdings for urgent and immediate plantings or other agricultural uses this season.
Splitting responsibilities 'flawed': NIC
NIC CEO Tom Chesson welcomed the CEWH delivering water to irrigation communities who need it – but said having important responsibilities shared by the Environment and Water portfolios was essentially flawed and duplicated bureaucratic roles.
“Why have two bosses?” he said.
“As the former Water Minister, Malcom Turnbull argued the need for Commonwealth intervention in the Murray Darling Basin was because; ‘widely distributed responsibilities for the management of the Basin have led to inefficiency, blame-shifting and under-resourcing by state and territory governments’.
“The decision to split responsibilities for the Water Act between the Environment and Agriculture Departments will add a further layer of complexity, duplication and red tape to the management of water resources in the Murray Darling Basin at the federal level.
“It also flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s rationale for the Commonwealth becoming involved in water resource management in the first place.
“The NIC has long argued that the institutional arrangements for the management of water across the federal and state governments are already cumbersome.
“In NSW this is reflected by the fact there are 10 different government agencies with a role in managing environmental water.”
Mr Chesson said those 10 agencies included; the federal Department of Environment; Murray Darling Basin Authority; and various State agencies for water, environment and primary industries.
“This model is flawed, it is cumbersome, creates confusion and adds additional levels of red tape, contrary to aims of the Basin Plan,” he said.
“To shift the CEWH out of the water portfolio will further confound the problem given the management of water resources is now split between two departments and be answerable to two ministers at the commonwealth level.”
ACF Acting Campaigns Director Jonathan La Nauze disagreed with the NIC saying environmental water should be used to protect and restore the rivers and wetlands of Murray-Darling Basin and “therefore the Environment Department is its natural home”.
“It would have been a real conflict of interest to put environmental water under the auspices of the Agriculture Department given the push from some parts of the irrigation industry to sell environmental water to irrigators,” he said.
“However, unanswered questions remain about what the move from ‘environment’ to ‘agriculture’ means for the Water Act and the Basin Plan and therefore the tax-payers investment of $13 billion to restore the balance in the Murray-Darling Basin.
“We ask Prime Minister Turnbull, who was an architect of the 2007 Water Act, to rule out any changes to the Water Act that would facilitate selling off environmental water to irrigators as demanded by the National Party at their Federal Conference last week.
“The community needs reassurance that the huge investment and considerable progress that has been made in restoring the Murray-Darling Basin to health will not be lost in the maelstrom of political bargaining.”
Mr Joyce gaining water policy will assist his long-held ambition to build more dams as outlined in the Northern Development and Agricultural White Papers with the $500 million allocated for pursuing water infrastructure projects.
Last week Mr Turnbull said the government's policies have been carefully considered but “We will develop new policies”.
That could potentially open the way to a key suggestion omitted from the government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, for the CEWH to be more flexible with water trading arrangements.
The draft green paper released in October last year said stakeholders had suggested greater flexibility in water use be encouraged within the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“More specifically, they suggested that water reforms continue to support irrigation businesses and rural communities, including through more efficient water trading markets and by examining options for counter-cyclical temporary trade of environmental water by the CEWH to mutually benefit irrigators and the environment,” the draft document said.
“Such an approach could assist in smoothing temporary water prices over time, with environmental water being purchased and used in times of relative water surplus and released onto the market in drier periods when demand for water from irrigators is greater.
“This would need to be done within legislative constraints and in a manner that would not compromise the environmental objectives of the Basin Plan.”
Mr Chesson said the 20GL of water to be released by the CEWH for sale needed to be made available in time for planning summer crops.
“With a very small window left to both plan for and get the crops in the ground the sale needs to be finalised quickly,” he said.
“We have now had two years of low inflows into our storages and it comes as no surprise that water most likely will be available for sale in the southern basin.
“What is surprising is that it’s such a small volume in relation to the size the amount of water that was carried over by the CEWF, about 650GL.
“Surely if they were accurately mimicking natural events – as is predicated in the Basin Plan - we would see water becoming available for sale in the Murray and Murrumbidgee systems.
“We are disappointed given the way the seasons have unfolded in the north that there is not water available in the northern valleys also.”