SHADOW Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and climate change spokesperson Mark Butler have vowed to remove Water from the Agriculture portfolio and return it to Environment, if Labor wins the next federal election.
Moving Water into the Agriculture ministry currently held by Barnaby Joyce was a prime outcome of the fresh Coalition agreement signed between new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and National Party leader Warren Truss in Canberra on Tuesday.
It came after a spectacular political manoeuvre the day before which saw Tony Abbott dumped as Prime Minister following a 54-44 vote in the Liberal party room.
The move to remove Mr Abbott as Liberal leader, and appoint the nation’s fifth Prime Minister since 2010, was sparked by escalating internal discontent amongst Liberals at ongoing poor voter polling results.
But after removing Mr Abbott, the new leader’s next immediate challenge was to strike an agreement with the Coalition’s suspicious junior partners to appease the Governor General and formally commence the new government.
Mr Turnbull was widely regarded as a hostile enemy of the National party when he last served as Coalition leader.
The inner Sydney MP’s brash willingness to push an Emissions Trading Scheme without proper consideration for potentially negative impacts on farmers and rural communities was one of several policy areas where he clashed heavily with the Nationals, while water was another.
Rural Liberal MP’s and Senators shared similar views about Mr Turnbull’s inability to consult properly with party members on the ETS, which ultimately cost him the leadership to Mr Abbott, in 2009.
However, Mr Turnbull signed a groundbreaking Coalition agreement with Mr Truss on Tuesday to deliver a long-held National party policy ambition to give water greater focus on outcomes for agriculture and boost Mr Joyce’s burning ambition to build dams.
The move is also aimed at protecting water from suffering bureaucratic sabotage at the hands of ideologically driven politicians, with little regard for impacts on regional communities.
Turnbull 'passionate' about water
Mr Turnbull said the bulk of the work on water reform had been done after the 1500GL cap on water buybacks was complete this week and it’s now “perfectly reasonable, feasible and unremarkable for water to be returned to the agriculture department”.
“I am as passionate about water as I am about technology,” he said today.
“Water had always been, at the federal level, in Agriculture.
“It was taken out of Agriculture in 2007 by John Howard and put into a new Department of Environment and water resources which I was the minister for.
“That was, I assume, for the purpose of me leading a very substantial water reform agenda, the national plan for water security.
“Prior to that the Commonwealth's involvement in water was limited, pretty much to the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
“That is a simplification, but we assumed a bigger role and the 2007 Water Act was subsequently amended by the Labor Government and there have been further amendments recently completed (1500GL cap).
“So the bulk of the reform process is done and it is, as Greg Hunt has said, it is perfectly reasonable, feasible and unremarkable for Water to be returned to the Agriculture Department."
The new deal
The new Coalition agreement will see responsibility for water policy outcomes for the Department of Environment and the Murray Darling Basin Authority transferred into the agriculture portfolio.
It will also see the existing Coalition policies in relation to climate change maintained including on any emission trading schemes or carbon reduction targets.
Other major outcomes for the Nationals include stronger moves to have cabinet consider amendments that were proposed by the Harper competition review, handed down earlier this year, to Section 46 of the Australian Competition Consumer Act, to prevent market power abuses in areas like agricultural supply chains.
Policy initiatives launched by the release of the Northern Australia Development White Paper and $4 billion Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper – released mid-year – will also be maintained along with moves to implement policy initiatives that will build more dams.
Other outcomes are understood to include funding for communications technology like boosting the mobile phone and television black spot programs.
Mr Truss said the Environment Minister would still have control over water issues associated with the EPBC Act, within his department.
“These particular issues will be managed and developed within the Department of Agriculture and in the way that they've traditionally been done over previous decades,” he said.
Mr Joyce said in going forward with his plans to build more dams, the economic and social basis for many towns in regional Australia was “premised on their access to water - and without water, they do not have an economy”.
“We know that we have to make sure that these people - not only the farmers - but the motel owners, the pub owners, the people who are employed in the town, all have a future,” he said.
Mr Joyce said the Nationals had been doing an “incredible job” with managing the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
“We've managed to mitigate the effects that the Greens and the Labor Party and the independents were going to do to the Basin in previous government,” he said.
“Remembering that (SA Greens) Senator Sarah Hanson-Young started with wanting to take 6000 gigalitres out of the Basin, which would have decimated the economy of all the people in the Basin."
Mr Joyce said the change of portfolios gave a close association between the resource, water – and the outcome “which is farming production”.
Leave Water with Environment Dept: Labor
But shortly after the National party’s announcement, Mr Butler also fronted media with Mr Fitzgibbon flanked by angry South Australian Labor politicians
Mr Butler said Mr Turnbull had sacrificed his deeply held beliefs about policies like climate change and water to fulfil a personal ambition to become Prime Minister.
He said Mr Turnbull had taken a position to the right of Mr Abbott and former Liberal PM John Howard on water policy by allocating responsibility to the National Party and “particularly to Barnaby Joyce”.
“What he has done is to sacrifice the finely balanced interests, the economic, social and environmental interests that are at the core of the Murray Darling Basin Plan just for his personal ambition and his attempt to try and buy the support of the National Party,” he said.
“When it comes to balancing the economic, social and environmental interests of the Murray Darling Basin, the health of the river will always end up last under Barnaby Joyce.”
Former Labor Environment and Water Minister Senator Penny Wong said “South Australians know that Barnaby Joyce is not our friend when it comes to water”.
Mr Butler said Labor’s position, if they won the next election, was the same position they had in government, and that Mr Abbott and Mr Howard had as Prime Ministers – with water returned to the environment portfolio.
Asked what he’d do with water if he became Agriculture Minister in a Labor government, Mr Fitzgibbon said he was with Mr Butler and his Labor colleagues.
“I want to ensure that the people making recommendations to government are doing so on the basis on the science, on the basis of sustainability but in doing so on the basis of the long term sustainable profitability of the agriculture sector,” he told Fairfax Media.
“The best way we ensure the efficient allocation and the sustainable allocation of water resources to our food and fibre sectors is to leave water management with the Environment Department and the scientists rather than allocate it towards Barnaby Joyce’s re-election campaign.”
Water move 'absolutely fine': Hunt
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt said he was “absolutely fine” with the decision to give Water over to Mr Joyce, as he held it prior to the last election, when in opposition.
“He and I worked very well,” he said.
“I think he may have been a little surprised when it was given to the Environment portfolio after the election.
“We've made tremendous reforms and between the two portfolios over many years we've achieved real reforms.”
Mr Butler said the vast bulk of the government’s water reform work was completed this week also when legislation passed the Senate to implement the 1500GL cap on commonwealth water buybacks, in the Basin Plan, “which allows us to focus on infrastructure as the way forward”.
“My job with Water was largely completed yesterday, in terms of reform,” he said.
“It was fortunate timing and I'm really proud of the work that successive Parliamentary Secretaries Simon Birmingham and Bob Baldwin did with me.
“We’ve just achieved, in the last two years, perhaps the greatest round of water reforms in Australia's history and I feel as though that job is done.”
Water with Ag 'good sense': NFF
National Farmers Federation water spokesperson Les Gordon said having Water in with Agriculture made good sense for farmers and rural and regional communities.
“In many ways it’s the most sensible thing to do,” he said.
“We’ve always seen water as a productive and environmental asset.
“Clearly there are people in the community who are unable to share that view but in our view it’s important to look at it as both as equal assets in order to achieve balanced outcomes for communities.”
Mr Butler said the NFF would seek to hold talks with Labor about their discontent with the ministerial change in the Coalition agreement.
“We’d like to talk to the opposition about this issue and explain how we see water as very much an asset for farm production and the environment,” he said.
“But having said that there’s no talk of changing the legislation around water - the Basin Plan and Water Act - which still operate in the same way.
“We think, as rural and regional communities, we’re more likely to see balanced outcomes achieved in the Basin Plan if water is looked at as both a productive and environmental asset.”
Greens keep roles separate
Under new portfolio allocations this week, the Greens have separate roles for Water and Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
WA Senator Rachel Siewert is responsible for Agriculture and Rural Affairs while new SA Senator Robert Simms has Water and the Murray Darling Basin.
Senator Siewert said the Australian Greens have long separated water, agriculture and rural affairs into separate portfolios.
“Regardless of how the Coalition merge or separate their portfolios, the issue is about their policies and how they ensure sustainable agriculture and water resources into the future,” she said.
“The key focus of the Australian Greens is the government's policies and resourcing in these portfolios - especially under new leadership.”
Australian Conservation Foundation healthy ecosystems program manager Jonathan La Nauze also questioned Mr Turnbull’s decision to move responsibility for water to the Agriculture portfolio.
“Water is a fundamental source of life for every Australian, not merely an input for particular industries,” he said.
“On this big dry continent, every community depends on a healthy environment.
“Water keeps our environment living and thriving, so it is essential it is managed independently of industries that benefit financially from using it.
“It makes no more sense to manage Water from the Agriculture department than from the Mining department."