FEDERAL National Party leader Warren Truss and deputy-leader Barnaby Joyce have led a vigorous defence of the new Coalition agreement struck with the Liberals.
The agreement was put together on Tuesday before Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as Prime Minister to replace Tony Abbott, outlining several policy measures including transferring Water into the Agriculture ministry.
That move and other initiatives have been welcomed by the National Farmers Federation and farmer groups.
But the deal’s hasty nature has sparked vocal criticism from Labor amid calls for the agreement’s actual text to be released to scrutinise its details.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the National party’s claims about the new Coalition agreement “have been vague and remain unsubstantiated”.
“The Nationals must release the agreement or leave people living and working in rural and regional Australia to assume that the bloke from Point Piper has played the Nationals off a break,” he said in reference to Mr Turnbull.
On Tuesday, Mr Fitzgibbon fronted media with Shadow Climate Change spokesperson Mark Butler who was also critical of Water being removed from Environment along with the Murray Darling Basin Authority, in the deal between Mr Truss and Mr Turnbull.
Mr Butler said Mr Turnbull was “stumbling in like a bull in a china shop with no consultation with anyone, just to shore up support in a dirty deal with the National Party”.
“That is not the way to deal with a very complex, very sensitive policy area,” he said.
However, Mr Butler admitted he hadn’t consulted with stakeholders about the new Coalition agreement as he’d only heard about the deal an hour before.
Deal has 'important wins': NFF
Yesterday, the National Farmers Federation said the new agreement between the two party leaders “demonstrates a welcome focus on the needs of rural, regional and remote Australia”.
NFF CEO Simon Talbot said the proof of the pudding of the new agreement would be in its eating.
“We will be watching closely to ensure delivery, but at first glance the Nationals appear to have secured some important wins for rural Australia,” he said.
“In particular, the decision to co-locate the Water and Agriculture portfolios under new ministerial arrangements will ensure water policy meshes with the government’s strategy to grow Australian agriculture.
“We see this as a positive indication that the Turnbull government understands the importance of governing for all Australians, not just those in major centres.”
The NFF said the text of the agreement had not been made public but they understood its key promises included; ongoing funding for the mobile blackspots program; movement of Water into the Agriculture portfolio; favourable consideration of the effects test; and an ongoing commitment to the inland rail project.
Mr Fitzgibbon also said that he’d not had the opportunity to talk to stakeholders since the “extraordinary announcement”.
But he said, “you can be sure there will be very significant concern in the agriculture sector”.
“People do understand you just can’t rush to deplete and undermine the health of rivers and expect long term sustainability in agriculture,” he said.
He said the best way we ensure the efficient and sustainable allocation of water resources to food and fibre sectors was “to leave water management with the Environment Department and the scientists rather than allocate it towards Barnaby Joyce’s re-election campaign”.
Mr Truss told Sky TV the Nationals were concerned about previous policy disagreements with Mr Turnbull and wanted to ensure any new relationship was built on a firm footing and they could support the new Coalition leader with confidence knowing the government’s policy “would not radically change”.
That concern was sparked by Mr Turnbull’s willingness to push forward with an Emissions Trading Scheme without considering impacts on farmers and in regional areas which cost him the leadership in 2009, to Mr Abbott.
Mr Truss said his party wanted to be sure current policies on carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes and climate change action targets, “would be honoured” or revised.
“Well we felt it was necessary that those arrangements be sorted out by way of a side letter to the Coalition agreement, so that there was an adequate understanding between us that the policy in some of these key issues would be maintained,” he said.
“I think this agreement ensures that there is a strong basis for our working relationship, and I'm confident that we'll be able to resolve issues that arise in the future.
“What we're trying to do is to clear the slate in relation to the past and to ensure that there will be an ongoing commitment to the infrastructure program (and) to making sure that regional Australians get a fair go.
“The key thing was to put those issues on paper so that we had a clear understanding.”
Mr Joyce said with a change in Prime Minister there needed be a restatement so people had a sense of confidence that the party’s policy views and values remained the same, “and we are doing that”, including for farmers who believe in connecting water with agriculture.
“We want to make sure that the positions that we have on climate change and the current policies are maintained, that the things that we asked the people to stand behind us at the previous election are maintained, and it also shows quite clearly that the National Party will go into bat,” he said.
“One of the things that always annoys me that we seem to oscillate between if people don't see us bargaining enough they call us a doormat, and when we do bargain…they call us tyrannical.
“Well, we're just tabulating exactly what we do.
“We're tabulating exactly what we asked for.”
Mr Joyce said the claim that putting farmers and irrigators back in charge of water policy meant the rivers and the lower lakes will miss out again was “a load of rubbish”.
Water move sparks 'histrionics'
National Irrigators’ Council CEO Tom Chesson said he was amazed by the “histrionics” which had accompanied the announcement that the federal Water portfolio would be returned to Agriculture.
“The near hysterical response from some quarters warning of dire consequences shows a frightening lack of knowledge about how the Basin Plan works,” he said.
“To put it simply there cannot be any changes to the Basin Plan unless Parliament authorises it.
“We are sick and tired of being used as political pawns as politicians try to whip up fear to wedge each other.”
MDBA Chair Neil Andrew Told Fairfax Media he had not been formally briefed about the move of his agency or the Water portfolio into agriculture but was “relaxed” about Mr Turnbull’s decision.
“I’m quite relaxed about the outcome because the Authority is focussed on delivering the triple bottom line of the Basin Plan and fulfilling our obligations to deliver the Basin Plan under the Water Act,” he said.
“And that’s what we’ll do, whether the Water portfolio is in Agriculture or the Environment portfolio.
“In the six-months that I’ve been the Chair, I’ve been extremely impressed with the passion at the Authority to deliver the Basin Plan’s triple bottom line.”
Mr Truss said Mr Turnbull had given “very clear signals” in the Parliament and also in their discussions on Tuesday and to his own party that he has learned from past experiences and was “the wiser for them”.
He said the new Liberal leader had also demonstrated that he needs to engage all sections of his own Party and the Coalition partners “if we are going to have a constructive and strong government into the future”.
“Now I think he started off well in that regard and I complement him, and look forward to working with him through the various issues,” he said yesterday.
“We won't always agree in the future, there will be more ambition that we will have for new policy areas in the future and we will have to work hard to achieve them just as other backbench members and ministers have to in developing a policy and trying to get the Budget allocation especially in these difficult economic times.
“And it is because we've got those challenging times it is so important that we have a strong, smooth working government.
“I think the time we've taken to develop this agreement will provide lasting benefits for the new government and, particularly, for all Australia.”