FEDERAL Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce has moved to resolve “media conjecture” over portfolio allocations and departmental responsibilities, in the new Turnbull Ministry.
On Wednesday, Mr Joyce met with Malcolm Turnbull to resolve final water policy allocations between him and Assistant Minister Anne Ruston and the Environment Minister Greg Hunt.
“It is in essence quite simple,” Mr Joyce said at a media conference on Thursday.
He explained water resources once sat under the Agriculture Department’s responsibility but were shifted into the Environment Department for the purpose of achieving the environmental aspects of the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s implementation.
Part of that Plan involved establishing the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) which Mr Joyce said had a “statutory purpose” and therefore had little interaction with the minister “because it has a statutory purpose”.
“You have little capacity to actually influence what the CEWH does,” he said.
“But all the functions away from that are with the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources who is me,” he said of the new roles and responsibilities.
“The review of the Basin Plan remains under the auspices of the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and in fact we’re doing that right now - it is on my desk as we go through the review recommendations.”
Mr Joyce said he would be working closely with Senator Ruston “on a whole range of issues”.
“But obviously water resources is going to be at the cabinet table - it is incredibly important and I’m at the cabinet table so I’ll have lead on it,” he said.
“There is not one thing that can go through cabinet without the cabinet minister responsible having the say.
“I'm actually responsible for it if it goes wrong – the responsibility resides with me – but let’s not try and create this binary effect of either or.”
Mr Joyce said he would work closely with Senator Ruston as he had previously with former Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Senator Richard Colbeck and SA Senator Simon Birmingham who was Mr Hunt’s former assistant and shadow minister for the Murray Darling Basin, in opposition.
He did not however mention NSW Liberal MP Bob Baldwin who replaced Senator Birmingham last December and oversaw passage of legislation to cap water buybacks in the Basin Plan at 1500 gigalitres, passed last month.
But Mr Joyce said he would soon be embarking on a Basin tour and the Northern Basin review was also on his radar, along with the overall review of the Basin Plan.
“This is easy knitting to pick up because it’s a job I’ve done before,” he said.
“I have lead on water but I don’t want that to be a case that therefore you don’t discuss other issues with other people, I do.
“I have always worked in that direction.
“I’ve always worked to get input from people so that we come up with a decision that is best for the Basin and that’s what I’ll continue to do.
“The reason I’m doing this press conference is because I read the conjecture that was in the media this morning and I thought, ‘we’ve just got to clarify this because a lot of these stories are rubbish’.
“There’s been no confusion for me.”
Mr Joyce said his meeting with Mr Turnbull was over Ministerial Charter Letters which was a process taken with every other minister.
“Our charter letter is finalised,” he said.
Senator Ruston is expected to hold responsibilities for horticulture and wine and the areas of fisheries and forestry previously held by Senator Colbeck before he was promoted to Tourism Minister and Assistant Trade Minister, in the Turnbull ministry.
Moving water policy out of the Environment Department and into Agriculture was a key outcome of the new Coalition agreement signed by Mr Turnbull, after he defeated Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership last month.
Mr Joyce said Cities Minister and SA Liberal Jamie Briggs – who sits under Mr Hunt’s ministry – would hold a role in some of the “administrative purposes” of the CEWH, within the Environment Department.
But he stressed the CEWH holder has a “statutory purpose and therefore there is not an awful lot you can do to instruct under that statutory purpose, by reason of being a minister”.
Mr Joyce said the minister sworn in at Government House with the title Agriculture and Water Resources – following the change of PM - was the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.
“That is the position at the cabinet table – that is the position I have carriage of at the cabinet table and I’m looking forward to it – working closely with Anne Ruston,” he said.
Mr Joyce said the Agriculture and Water Resources Department would be responsible for water buybacks and the CEWH administers the water purchased for those functions related to the Basin Plan and would therefore remain in the Environment Department.
“I’ll be doing everything in my power to make sure that we get the best outcomes in both in stream works for better environmental outcomes, using more efficient allocation of water, and also doing our very best to make sure that our on-farm works and measures get us the best outcome there, and we’ve been doing that,” he said.
Mr Joyce said he would leave the announcement on allocation of fisheries and forestry to be revealed by the Prime Minister, as per his final Charter Letter.
But he resisted making a judgment on demands this week by Northern Victorian food producers to change the CEWH’s powers, to improve water trading rules due to current high prices and subsequent cost impacts on producers and industry.
“The one thing you welcome back once you’re in water is that every person wants to say G’day,” he said.
“It is a highly politically complex area and I’m not going to start making proclamations about what may or may not happen.
“I’ve been in this space before; I’ve lived in the Basin; I was an accountant in the Basin.
“I’ve worked actually with State governments on water and believe you me the one thing I’m going to do is go about this quietly, diligently and in a consulting process with all people who are affected because that’s how you get outcomes.”
Mr Joyce said he worked in a bipartisan way with former Water Minister Tony Burke to deliver the Basin Plan in the previous parliament, when the Labor MP was considering working with the Greens who demanded a 6500 gigalitre baseline environmental water recovery target.
The Basin Plan had a final 2750GL target for Sustainable Diversion Limits and additional 450GLs for SA when it was passed into law, in late 2012.
More questions than answers
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Barnaby Joyce’s “bumbling attempt” to clarify the new ministerial arrangements around agriculture and water “raises more questions than provided answers”.
“He didn’t once, except in answer to a question, mention Minister Briggs - who I understand does have part six of the Water Act 2007; which of course is the part of the Act which amongst other things controls and stipulates the law around the Commonwealth Water Holder,” he said.
“This has become ridiculously chaotic.
“We had a senior business delegation here yesterday wanting to talk about potential changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and rules - but they did not know which Minister they should be talking with.
“Fisheries and forestry having been lopped off the ministerial title two years ago is now without any defined clarity about who they should be talking to about fisheries and forestry.
“Only a month ago we had a dedicated Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry in Richard Colbeck, but today people don’t know who they should be talking to and today, allegedly, Senator Anne Ruston doesn’t still know what she has responsibility for.”
Mr Fitzgibbon called on Mr Joyce to release the “side letter” to the Coalition agreement publicly and the Ministerial Charter Letter.
“There is nothing confidential about a Charter Letter,” he said.
“It just simply sets out the Ministers’ responsibilities and what are the expectations of the Prime Minister about the role the Parliamentary Secretaries or junior Ministers will play.
“Most of the arrangements that Barnaby Joyce was talking about, when he starting talking outside the Murray-Darling Basin, are the responsibility of the States.
“We know that on the day of the leadership ballot Barnaby Joyce was causing the aspiring Prime Minister grief.
“The now Prime Minister quieted him down by promising him something he simply hasn’t delivered but Barnaby Joyce wants you to believe, wants the Australian public to believe, something quite different.”
Senator Ruston did not return calls to Fairfax Media.