Cry me a river
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is key to the PM’s legacy. He must save it.
Everything is too important for politics, but the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is really too important for politics. The PM must show leadership and take back responsibility for the plan that he helped shape a decade ago, when he was minister for water resources in the Howard government.
Last night the Senate voted to block a 70-gigalitre reduction in the 3200 gigalitres of water to be recovered for environmental flows for the Murray-Darling Basin, which supports 40 per cent of Australia’s agriculture. The vote has taken the plan right to the brink, with New South Wales and Victoria threatening to pull out.
After more than a century of argy-bargy, we know exactly how the blame game will play out: Liberal vs Labor, Nationals vs Greens, downriver vs upriver states, irrigators vs scientists. It will be a disaster.
Hopefully everyone will pull back before the blame game gets underway. The person who can stop it, who needs to show some leadership, is the prime minister himself. Turnbull has a legacy to defend here, one of the most significant achievements of his political career. The Water Act 2007, which Turnbull persuaded Howard to back with a $10 billion Commonwealth commitment, achieved several things. It introduced rigorous nationalised water accounting, improved water trading under the supervision of the competition regulator, set up the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and, perhaps most importantly, established the concept of holistic management of the basin itself. As ANU water scientist Dr Jamie Pittock, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, explains: “Turnbull was a courageous and innovative water minister. Before, the basin plan was a bottom-up process of collating what each state did. Turnbull turned that around, introducing strong basin-wide targets that cascaded down to the states and down to subsidiary catchments.” Dr Pittock says that if NSW or Victoria were indeed to withdraw, the Commonwealth can unilaterally impose the plan on the states if they fail to submit water resource plans by June next year. “It’s his legacy, an area he knows well, and he’s got the constitutional power to step in as required.”
Turnbull was forced to hand responsibility for the Murray-Darling Basin to the Nationals when he knocked off Tony Abbott in September 2015, as a condition of the secret Coalition agreement, which was thoroughly renegotiated. Back then, the deputy PM and Nationals leader, Warren Truss, told reporters at a press conference that the negotiations were tough: “There have obviously been some policy differences between the new leader of the Liberals and the Nationals in the past so we want our relationship into the future to be built on a sound basis and this document, I think, achieves that.”
The Nationals got pretty much whatever they wanted. The then deputy leader and agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, joked that they “didn’t get Treasury,” but Joyce did get responsibility for water and the Murray-Darling Basin. He said at the time he would take a triple-bottom line approach to the plan, which meant social, economic and environmental outcomes – in that order: “The economic and social basis for so many towns in regional Australia is premised on their access to water … without water, they do not have an economy,” he said. He added that “There’s not much point having an environmental outcome if there’s no one there to enjoy it.”
He was a bit more candid as to why he wanted the water portfolio at a Politics in the Pub event in country Victoria last year, just days after ABC’s Four Corners revealed rorting and water theft by irrigators. Joyce told the punters: “We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask.”
Today NSW regional water minister and deputy leader of the Nationals in NSW, Niall Blair, said he was not bluffing, and after last night’s Senate vote has begun the process of pulling NSW out of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Blair oversaw a department, which, as Four Corners showed, was allegedly in cahoots with irrigators, offering them “debranded” official information. The whole thing is now the subject of an ICAC investigation. How Blair remains in office is a complete mystery – it only shows how far ministerial accountability standards have deteriorated. Pittock says NSW has been shifting the goalposts to favour irrigators and calls the governance of water in the west of the state a “disgrace”. Now that the NSW government has been caught out by Four Corners, he says, it has belatedly put in place measures to improve compliance, but has left in place the rules favouring irrigators.
The Murray-Darling Basin plan is not dead yet. The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young moved the disallowance motion that succeeded in the Senate yesterday, with support from Labor and crossbenchers including NXT, Derryn Hinch and South Australian conservative Cory Bernardi. She told a press conference this afternoon that the Senate vote was a “shot across the bows” and sheeted the blame home to Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, whom she likened to a “drunk in charge of the pub”.
The Nationals leader’s bargaining position has never been weaker. It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to take back control.
since this morning
In breaking news, it has been announced that the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, will take leave next week. Earlier it had been expected he would be acting prime minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s absence. It speaks volumes about his current status as Nationals leader. Joyce is now facing questions in parliament over a $5000 grant made to Greg Maguire, the New England businessman who has provided him with a rent-free apartment in Armidale.
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and the Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
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