Water policy ebbs and flows

After decades of horse trading...water policy is pretty much settled

ONE of the more extraordinary events on Capital Hill last week was Barnaby Joyce's attempts to claim responsibility for water policy.

In one sense it's a somewhat irrelevant debate because after decades of horse trading between the Commonwealth, the States, and other stakeholders, water policy is pretty much settled.

This is particularly true of the Murray Darling Basin, Australia's primary food-bowl. There, governments have finally settled on a formula for guaranteeing the health of the river systems and therefore, the sustainability of the agriculture pursuits which rely on them.

But Barnaby Joyce seems determined to both claim responsibility for water policy and in doing so, send the message that under his reign, policy would change; and that any farmer who wanted more water would get it at the right price.

Two problems emerge. First, despite Barnaby's claims to the contrary, Malcolm Turnbull has not honoured the promise he gave to Barnaby on the day he rolled Tony Abbott. It says something about the now PM's ambition, that he was prepared to undermine water policy, when even Tony Abbott was unprepared to.

However the Ministerial Orders prepared by Turnbull’s office and signed by the Governor General make it clear that the primary water responsibilities remain with the Environment Minister, as they should.

Second, even if Malcolm Turnbull had honoured his promise, any substantial policy change would require the agreement of the Basin States and the support of both Houses of the Federal Parliament. This would have been unlikely, no matter who is the advocate for change.

The real issue flowing from Barnaby Joyce's bizarre behavior is the way it threatens to unsettle the Murray Darling Basin consensus. Unlike most with an interest, Barnaby Joyce doesn't seem to understand that agriculture's sustainability depends entirely on the health of the water system.

Further, if there is a legitimate case for regulatory adjustment, it's most likely to succeed in a benign political environment; one in which the stability, certainty and broad support are the order of the day.

When this political environment exists, relatively minor adjustments to the regulatory construct are possible. This was evident when the current government proposed a change to cap buy-backs and the Labor opposition supported the initiative.

Few acts of parliament are timeless and few issues are immune from changing circumstances. More often than not, when governments put forward a readable and sensible case for change, Opposition parties support it.

Securing support for small and meritorious change in sensitive areas like the Murray Darling Basin requires evidenced-based submissions and a level of trust between the relevant stakeholders. It is the existing, hard won detente which made the most recent adjustments possible.

Currently there are various calls for further change. Some may have merit, others may not. But the message Barnaby Joyce is trying to send; that he'll ride to the rescue of any producer or grower who wants more water at a cheap price, threatens the prospects of securing regulatory tweaking when the facts demand it.

Sadly I suggest Barnaby Joyce is spending more time thinking about the timing of Warren Truss's retirement than he does the long term sustainability of Australia's agriculture sector for future generations.

Joel Fitzgibbon

Joel Fitzgibbon

is Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry & Rural Affairs and the MP for Hunter
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


angry australian
19/10/2015 8:22:58 AM

More garbage from a politician who chooses to remain ignorant of fact and common sense. Water policy especially in the MDB isn't settled, if it was we wouldn't have Senators Madigan & co running around talking to people, we wouldn't have Heff and Wong ranting and we still haven't found a workable solution to a complex problem. Infrastructure improvements are only useful if there is water and no one has ever been able to convince me you can sell a ml of water from say Deniliquin and move it to say Qld! As for squandering $billions on buybacks what a poor use of taxpayer $'s.
19/10/2015 11:58:58 AM

It'll be interesting next autumn Joel, after all the environmentall flows have drained the dams and the looming El Niño puts everyone back onto severe water restrictions, to see how settled the MDB plan really is
Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed
19/10/2015 1:04:25 PM

Declared droughts, El Nino, lack of water, repeaded self interest and calls for handing over of water rights to use and hope for more rain/water to just come around some how coupled with barely any attempt to put forward a plan when water is not avaliable is the obtuse table stake holders are sitting at.
Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed
19/10/2015 1:07:29 PM

And more land has been opened up for irrigation on the driest nation on earth.
Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed
19/10/2015 1:09:02 PM

Dry upand blow away rings a bell.
Jock Munro
19/10/2015 1:14:04 PM

Joel's comments are about all we could expect from the urban political class from Labor and Liberal.
Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed
19/10/2015 3:01:34 PM

Labors week stance. Because they dont know.
John Carpenter
20/10/2015 3:52:51 PM

Like most of the political class the shadow minister pays lip service to the mantra that "change" is possible with the proviso that,like death and taxes, it should be postponed as long as possible and that until there is a consensus no change at all is preferable because the circumstances aren't "just right" and it would be better to adopt a Darwinian type evolution that would be glacial and not upset the stays quo.Minister, in an era of disruptive upheaval which we are currently experiencing change is the norm.
Out of the shadowShadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon aims to put ag policy under the microscope. Based in the NSW Hunter Valley, Joel also has a unique perspective on the tensions between primary production and mining development.


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Sorry did i get it wrong..? Rankins Springs is still open..?!
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No doubt a few frosted Freddies out there who will wish they had taken a closer look at the AGC
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Matthew, I was wondering if you had followed up this story with the farmer after the whole