THE Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) will remain under the Environment Ministry following talks between Malcolm Turnbull and federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce yesterday.
Mr Turnbull has yet to make a formal statement about the final allocation of water policy responsibilities under the new ministerial arrangements.
But sources say the CEWH and the powers under the Water Act 2007 critical to environmental watering allocations will sit under Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s controls.
It’s understood new Cities Minister Jamie Briggs who is Mr Hunt’s junior minister will hold those powers in his portfolio.
But a late charge to have Mr Joyce’s Assistant Minister – SA Senator Anne Ruston – hold water policy powers has been averted, sources say, and will remain in Mr Joyce’s control.
The shift of water policy into the Agriculture Ministry was a key plank of a side-letter to the Coalition agreement signed between the Nationals and Mr Turnbull, after he defeated Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership last month.
It’s expected Senator Ruston will hold responsibility for horticulture and wine and fisheries and forestry when the Ministerial Charter Letters are finalised by Mr Turnbull.
The portfolio allocations are expected to follow the Governor General’s Administrative Orders on ministerial roles released after the change of PM, including Mr Joyce having responsibility for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and water policy.
Mr Joyce and other backers are expected to be disappointed at the CEWH not sitting in the Agriculture portfolio, where they had urged it to sit for consistency in the day to day operations of water policy management.
Calls have also been made for the CEWH to be given more flexibility in trading excess water, including stopping water buybacks from its trading revenue and to instead invest in environmental works and measures.
Yesterday, ahead of Mr Joyce’s meeting with Mr Turnbull, seven of the eight crossbench Senators backed Mr Joyce having full responsibility for water policy, while urging the Basin Plan be “paused” due to concerns about the current high cost of water.
Mr Turnbull and Mr Hunt have both said water reforms are largely complete and the Basin Plan’s water delivery targets set in legislation, paving the way for water policy to return to the agriculture portfolio, where it has traditionally been held.
However, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon accused the government of being chaotic, because one month after Mr Turnbull’s appointment the agriculture and water ministerial responsibilities were still unconfirmed.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Mr Turnbull’s “sting” on Mr Joyce was continuing over his original promise in the Coalition agreement to hand water policy and powers to the Agriculture Ministry.
He said the new Prime Minister had promised Mr Joyce water prior to the leadership ballot - but now “Barnaby Joyce will not have control of those precious water resources”.
“If newspaper articles are correct it appears the new minister with responsibility for the Murray Darling Basin is the Minister for Cities; most people will find that extraordinary,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said a high level business delegation that visited Canberra yesterday – of food manufacturers form northern Victoria - to raise concerns about drought and water allocation in the Murray Darling Basin didn’t know which minister to talk to.
“This is a government in chaos, it’s dysfunctional and Malcolm Turnbull needs to come out today and clearly define who has responsibility for water resources in the Murray Darling Basin and to reassure all of us who are concerned about getting the right balance between environmental flows and the needs of agriculture,” he said.
“Because getting that balance right is crucial to the long term sustainability of Australian agriculture.”
“What the crossbenchers did yesterday under the instruction of Barnaby Joyce is go out as a cheer squad for Barnaby Joyce trying to persuade Malcolm Turnbull that Barnaby Joyce should get his hands on the precious water resources of the Murray Darling Basin (but) that is a disaster.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said responsibility for water policy should sit with the senior cabinet minister – not junior ministers – which should be the Environment Minister, as per the GG’s Ministerial Orders.
He said the Basin Plan was a long time in the making and one of the most critical plans for Australia.
But Mr Fitzgibbon stressed his party was open to adjusting and making changes to the Plan, where there was merit and where appropriate, as they did in recently supporting the 1500 gigalitre cap on water buybacks.
Senator Ruston was contacted for comment but did not return calls before deadline while Mr Joyce’s office has also declined to comment following yesterday’s meeting.
MDBA Chair Neil Andrew said he was expecting an announcement overnight about the ministerial responsibilities but was still unsure of the final outcome.
However, Mr Andrew said he was not lobbying either way on the issue and was “happy to work with whoever”.
Ministers must work closely: Stone
Liberal MP Sharman Stone said Mr Joyce already had Water in his title and responsibility for the Basin Plan while Mr Hunt had the CEWH and if the two ministers work very closely together “it’ll be ok”.
She said water policy had traditionally belonged to the Agriculture Ministry and was also managed that way by State governments, which “makes sense”.
Ms Stone also said the crossbench Senators’ comments yesterday were “spot-on” in saying there was a serious problem with the Basin Plan.
“They used the crisis word – and I guess I’d say yes there is a crisis (but) I don’t think we need to blow up the Plan and start from scratch again,” she said.
“There are elements of the Plan, if you go back to the original first principles that are right, like a triple bottom line.”
Ms Stone said the problem with the Basin Plan was that it was introduced and developed during the worst drought on record and when the Greens had balance of power in the federal parliament which put its balance “out of kilter”.
However, she said the Basin Plan needs “tweaking”