SEVEN of the eight influential federal crossbench Senators have demanded Barnaby Joyce have full control of water resources in his ministry portfolio – including the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) and Water Act 2007.
Led by Victorian Independent Senator John Madigan, the crossbenchers rallied behind Mr Joyce taking full responsibility for water policy, during a media conference in Canberra today.
They also called on the new Prime Minister to “pause” the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s roll-out until the results of a current Senate-select committee inquiry into its impacts on farmers and rural communities are tabled in parliament.
They also warned record high water prices of $300 per megalitre are having negative impact on farmers and must be resolved.
Their warning comes ahead of Mr Joyce’s critical meeting with Mr Turnbull later today to discuss final portfolio allocations, including the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
National party members have warned Mr Turnbull must maintain his word regarding policy allocations as per the new Coalition agreement, or else they would make life uncomfortable in the Senate, heading into the next federal poll.
In the Coalition agreement, Mr Turnbull agreed to move Water policy over to the Agriculture Ministry, from Environment, and subsequently appointed SA Liberal Senator Anne Ruston as Mr Joyce’s deputy.
However, it remains unclear what level of responsibility Senator Ruston will hold on water policy and if the CEWH and Water Act 2007 powers will be managed under Environment.
It’s understood Mr Joyce has written to Mr Turnbull – who is yet to release his Ministerial Charter Letters - offering the SA Liberal Senator to hold responsibility for horticulture and wine and fisheries and forestry.
Senator Madigan said there was a crisis affecting rural families, communities and small businesses due to the Basin Plan’s implementation and the water reforms being “tilted” towards the environment while lacking balance between social and economic outcomes.
“If we’re not saving the environment for people, who are we saving it for?” he said.
“Farmers care about the environment; they’re not environmental vandals.
“We’re calling today on Prime Minister Turnbull to appoint the water portfolio to Minister Barnaby Joyce, the Minister for Agriculture.
“We’re asking for Mr Turnbull to pause the Plan until the findings of the Senate select Committee on the Murray Darling Basin are delivered to parliament.
“Thirdly we’re asking for immediate reform of the Water Act 2007 to give equal weighting to social and economic outcomes as well as the environment.”
While not at the media conference, the Senators said fellow crossbench Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie also supported their position.
Senator Madigan said the price of water had hit $300 a megalitre in some areas of the Basin “and this is unsustainable for young farmers”.
He said he and Victorian Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir had also visited areas of the Basin like Northern-Victoria and they believed “farmers are in crisis”.
“The government has told us they want to develop a relationship with the crossbench,” he said.
“We have a relationship with the people in the Murray Darling Basin (and) we are not ignoring their plight.
“We’re telling the government there’s a crisis that needs to be addressed and they need to pause the Plan; they need to pause the buybacks of water; they need to amend the 2007 Water Act (to reflect equally the social and economic impacts); and they need to put the water portfolio in the hands of Minister Joyce so that it’s in cabinet.
“Water is a national issue and it cannot be outside of cabinet.”
SA Family First Senator Bob Day said there was a simple formula attached to the crossbench Senators’ message to Mr Turnbull.
“Family farms and communities will thrive if they get enough water; if they don’t get enough water they’ll die,” he said.
“There’s a crisis going on and we’ve heard evidence (at the Senate inquiry) now from as far away as St George in Queensland and Barham on the border of NSW and Victoria, and I don’t need to say what the feelings are on water in SA - but we need some action now.
“Water hit a record high yesterday and that’s prompted us into action.
“Farming communities and family farms just afford that kind of expense.”
Basin Plan needs action 'now'
NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm said the crossbench Senators weren’t threatening the government with blackmail but wanted Mr Turnbull to act now.
He said ministerial portfolios are being arranged to suit the government’s agenda for the remainder of this term and the social costs of the Basin Plan must be taken into consideration “now”.
“It’s much harder to achieve change once everything is bedded down,” he said.
“Because things are in flux now, there is pressure from other sources as well to put water fully into agriculture, and now is a good time for us to apply pressure to the government.”
But Senator Leyonhjelm said it won’t be necessary for the crossbench to hold up other legislation, to have their demands on water policy heard by Mr Turnbull.
“The government is in no mood to pick a fight with the crossbench; neither is the opposition for that matter,” he said.
“They’re listening to us right now but we have to be sure they get the message directly; that’s why we’re all speaking with one voice today.
“There is an appetite amongst the government to listen to us and we don’t think it will be necessary to do any blackmailing.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said the CEWH should “absolutely” be freed up to trade water and use any proceeds and any profit in trading in water to commit to water savings like infrastructure.
Senator Madigan said if the CEWH was going to trade water, they should not be allowed to return to the market and purchase water, placing further pressure on communities and farmers.
Senator Muir said he’d travelled to areas of the Basin and listened to the concerns of the people who lived there on the issues.
He said balance was needed between not only the environmental outcomes in the Basin Plan but also the social and economic effects that water-use has on rural communities.
“Without food we don’t live so the reality is we need to find that balance so that way our farmers are able to produce fresh produce and feed for their livestock, right here in Australia,” he said.
'Enough is enough': Lazarus
Queensland Independent Senator Glenn Lazarus said water was at the forefront of everyone’s mind in his home State which is currently 80 per cent drought declared and has been in drought for the past four years.
He said water was “the lifeblood of the country” and “the straw that broke the camels’ back” was the high cost of water to farmers which was impacting their ability to produce crops.
Senator Lazarus said on one area of his State, entitlement to 142,000 megalitres of water per year had been removed which equated to losing 142,000 less bales of cotton, having $70 million less income for farmers and $210m flowing into local economies.
“Enough is enough,” he said.
“Water is a massive issue in this country and we need to sort it out.”
Palmer United Party WA Senator Dio Wang said the lesson that needed to be learned was about priorities for the Basin Plan’s balancing act of social, economic and environmental impacts.
He believes farmers should be trusted with water and come first.
“Farmers are really not happy about the way the water is being managed and my view is that if we need to trust someone to manage water, it has to be the farmers because they’re the ones whose livelihood is dependent on the water,” he said.
“Farmers are fully aware of the environmental impacts and they are focused on their long-term livelihood.
“They want their kids to enjoy farming life and inherit the family farm; that’s their long-term goal and I absolutely agree with it.
“I’m willing to give farmers the first priority when it comes to water.
“People are leaving rural and regional areas because the water has been held up for environmental purposes - but in the end farmers are the ones who can be best trusted to look after the water resources themselves.”
Food manufacturers hit Canberra
Food manufacturers from Northern Victoria have also descended on Canberra today, to demand action on water access and affordability.
Representatives from SPC, Kagome, Murray-Goulburn, Fonterra, Australian Consolidated Milk and Pactum Dairy will meet with different federal ministers warning of a Murray-Darling Basin Plan generated water crisis in Northern Victoria impacting on productivity and employment.