VICTORIAN Liberal MP Sharman Stone has called on Malcolm Turnbull to ensure ministerial responsibilities for water policy are not split between the agriculture and environment portfolios.
The new Prime Minister agreed to transfer water policy from the Environment portfolio into Agriculture in the Coalition agreement struck to form government, after Mr Turnbull defeated Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership two weeks ago.
An unprecedented side-letter to that arrangement also saw the National party leader Warren Truss secure Mr Turnbull’s commitment to other policies like climate change, due to apprehensions driven by his previous stint as Liberal leader.
The move to transfer ministerial responsibility for water policy outcomes and the Murray Darling Basin Authority into Agriculture has been roundly backed by farming groups.
Subsequently, Barnaby Joyce was appointed the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and South Australian Liberal Senator Anne Ruston his Assistant Minister.
Senator Ruston is likely to oversee areas previously managed by Tasmanian Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck in forestry and fisheries, along with wine and horticulture.
However, it remains unclear whether Mr Turnbull will change the Administrative Arrangements Orders released last week by Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, when the PM’s Ministerial Charter Letters are finalised.
The Administrative Orders followed the Prime Minister’s promise in the Coalition agreement to add water policy and resources to the Department of Agriculture and the MDBA.
But in a move that’s upset the National Irrigators Council, the Orders also added the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) and part six of the Water Act 2007 concerning environmental water use, to the Environment Department.
Irrigators believe the Agriculture Department managing the CEWH will enhance moves to trade excess environmental water, while adhering to the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental outcomes.
But the Australian Conservation Foundation wants the CEWH to remain in the Environment Department, believing environmental water should be used to protect and restore the Basin’s rivers and wetlands.
Speculation has also suggested that South Australian Liberal MP Jamie Briggs, who was appointed Minister for Cities and the Built Environment under the Environment Minister Greg Hunt, could hold the CEWH responsibilities.
A spokesperson for Mr Hunt told Fairfax Media the new Administrative Arrangement Orders were a matter for the Prime Minister but stressed the CEWH had recently started trading water back to farmers.
Keep water in one department
Last week Ms Stone wrote to Mr Turnbull saying the ministerial responsibilities for water policy should not be split between the two departments.
“What I suggested in my letter to the Prime Minister was that if he did feel moved to disaggregate water policy and divide it between departments, it would make some sense to have marine reserves in the Environment Department,” she said.
“But certainly the rest of the water policy would be better served with having it in the one department and agency.
“And it makes sense to have water in agriculture because water is about productivity and water is about managing the triple bottom line.
“As we know, we have serious dysfunction now across the Murray Darling Basin Plan, where it has been estimated the loss of productivity is $3 million to $5 million per day, due to the now failed water security.
“We’ve got serious problems with food growing and food manufacturing and when you’ve got serious problems of viability with primary producers you also have environmental risk.”
Ms Stone said she wasn’t privy to the exact details of Coalition agreement between Mr Turnbull and Mr Truss.
But she said it was up to the Nationals to stress that they understood the promise to shift water into agriculture was “comprehensive and not just a bit of water policy”.
Ms Stone said she was concerned the new ministerial arrangements would divide water policy and management into “separate silos”.
“The CEWH belongs with the rest of the water portfolio and that way you avoid having all of these separate departments, ministers and communications,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s just pandering to the Greenies to have water in the environment portfolio and say ‘look, look, look, we really are about frogs and fishes’.
“But it would be just as appropriate for water to be in the agriculture portfolio because of course if you don’t have sustainable agriculture, our farmers can’t manage the environment in a sustainable way.”
Ms Stone said the CEWH’s legislative protocols meant it had to adhere to the Basin Plan’s triple bottom line, to give equal consideration to social, economic and environmental outcomes.
“It does seem a bit odd for the CEWH to sit entirely in the environment portfolio - but perhaps there will be further thought given to that,” she said.
Ultimate responsibility with minister
Mr Joyce told Fairfax Media the ultimate responsibility for water policy “remains with the minister who has to take it to cabinet”.
“And I have to take it to cabinet because I’m in cabinet,” he said.
“Obviously I’ll have strong correspondence with Anne Ruston on issues that are important to her.
“I’ve sent a letter to Anne and I’m not going to disclose what that is.
“But we’ve had a discussion and I think we have a clear understanding of where we are and overwhelmingly the carriage of water will rest with me.”
Mr Joyce said he’d not seen Mr Turnbull’s Ministerial Charter Letters as yet outlining the final ministerial and agency responsibilities “but will be guided by them”.
“I don’t to give away anything at this point in time,” he said.
Mr Joyce said the National Party weren’t the only ones who wanted water to have a closer association with agriculture.
“Any person in the Murray Darling Basin wants water to have a closer association with agriculture,” he said.
Mr Joyce has expressed a strong desire to build more dams and water infrastructure to boost agricultural production and stimulate economic activity in regional areas.
The Coalition agreement also locked-in Mr Turnbull’s commitment to deliver the Northern Development and Agricultural White Papers which contained a $500 million water infrastructure fund.
“Water is the lifeblood of rural Australian communities and economies, and a critical input for agriculture,” Mr Joyce said.
“Our water resources must be managed sustainably and with a long-term vision.
“It is our goal to deliver the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental benefits.”