BARNABY Joyce has fired an early warning shot at the Coalition’s senior Liberal partner, saying he will have ultimate cabinet responsibility in his new expanded ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources.
New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed to remove Water out of Environment and into Agriculture, when he signed the new Coalition agreement with National Party leader Warren Truss last week.
That change prompted South Australian Liberal MP Tony Pasin to say he had concerns with Mr Joyce holding responsibility for water which reflected the views of irrigation communities in the south portion of the Murray Darling Basin.
Mr Pasin said he was comfortable with Water being moved into Agriculture from Environment but was “a little concerned” about the “deeper involvement” of the Nationals in the Basin Plan’s implementation.
“The National Party don't have significant interest in the lower end of the river system that I'm responsible for,” he said.
Yesterday, South Australian Liberal Senator Anne Ruston was named as Mr Joyce’s Assistant Minister in Mr Turnbull’s new front bench, which sources say was aimed at addressing concerns about water management in her home State and rewarding factions in South Australia who backed Mr Turnbull over Tony Abbott.
That meant rising and talented Liberal rural members like Victorian MP Dan Tehan and NSW MP Angus Taylor were both overlooked, in favour of Senator Ruston’s promotion.
Veteran Victorian rural Liberal MP Sharman Stone, who has strong views on Murray Darling Basin issues and agriculture, and replaced Mr Tehan as Chair of the Coalition’s agricultural backbench committee earlier this month, was also overlooked for promotion.
Today, Mr Joyce said Senator Ruston was “off the land”, had strong experience in horticulture and understood water issues “forensically” in relation to South Australia.
“Not only did I guess that there would be, I also guessed who it would be,” Mr Joyce said on promoting a Liberal from South Australia to be his Assistant Minister.
Mr Joyce said he got along well with Senator Ruston and had also worked in a collegial manner with his former Assistant Minister and Tasmanian Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck to reach agreement on portfolio issues.
He also echoed Mr Turnbull and Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s comments that Murray Darling Basin water reforms are largely complete and the remaining work was largely administrative.
But he said, “Ultimately when it comes to going to cabinet, this responsibility lies with me and therefore I’ll have to own that portfolio.”
Mr Joyce said he held the Water portfolio in opposition and had worked positively with South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister in Tony Abbott’s first ministry before being replaced by Bob Baldwin last December.
He said he planned to continue a strong working relationship with Senator Ruston on issues like horticulture and Rural Research and Development Corporations.
“In agriculture, you’re never short of work – it’s a massive portfolio with massive and variant interest groups,” he said.
Today, National Irrigators Council CEO Tom Chesson welcomed having a minister and assistant minister for water and agriculture who both understood the Murray Darling Basin’s intrinsic needs, through lived experience.
“With five different Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries in the last two years NIC welcomes the appointment of not one but two people who live in the Basin to the Agriculture and Water Resources Portfolio,” he said.
“We note that both have experience in working in Agriculture and water related industries and can hit the ground running.
“Timeframes for the implementation of the Basin Plan are extremely tight and there simply isn’t the time left for a new Minister to undertake the water 101 course.”
Mr Chesson said the NIC also welcomed fact that the minister responsible for Water would be again be a cabinet minister.
“Water is vital to regional communities and it was disappointing to have it previously demoted to a junior front bench position,” he said.
“Having a Cabinet Minister responsible for the day to day issues in the water portfolio will be important with a number of key issues to be decided in the next 12 months.
“These include the Legislative response to the Water Act Review, the future budgets to deal with the legacy costs of the Basin Plan (currently there is no funding for Federal Government Water Agencies beyond 2016-17) and the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (which includes the Northern Basin Review) to be undertaken in 2016.
“Basin communities believe they are not being listened to and both Minister Joyce and Assistant Minister Ruston will have to spend time explaining to Basin communities how the Basin Plan is actually delivering a triple bottom line outcome and communities' concerns are not only being heard they are being acted upon.”