MDBA's new leader steps up

22 Jan, 2015 03:00 AM
Former South Australian federal Liberal MP Neil Andrew when he was Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2000.
Former South Australian federal Liberal MP Neil Andrew when he was Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2000.

FORMER South Australian federal Liberal MP Neil Andrew has been appointed the new chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).

Incumbent chair Craig Knowles advised the Coalition government last October that he wouldn’t seek an extension to his four-year term that’s due to expire on January 31.

Mr Andrew’s appointment was due to be formally announced late last year but was delayed, following Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cabinet reshuffle, in late December.

Changes to the Abbott Ministry saw NSW Liberal MP Bob Baldwin appointed the new Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister Greg Hunt, to replace South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham.

Senator Birmingham is believed to have recommended Mr Andrew’s appointment as the new MDBA chair, before the changeover, which was accepted.

However, Mr Hunt and Mr Baldwin only confirmed Mr Andrew’s appointment today, following a report by Fairfax Media last week, indicating that an announcement was imminent.

Long MDBA association

Mr Andrew represented the SA seat of Wakefield from March 1983 to October 2004 and is 70 years old.

He has had a life long association with the irrigation industry, particularly irrigated horticulture and viticulture.

He was appointed Speaker of the House of Representatives after the October 1998 election and in retirement has remained actively engaged in high-level agricultural work.

In December 2013, Mr Andrew released a report in Canberra that detailed the benefits of Australia’s work in international agricultural aid programs, written by a taskforce he chaired for the Crawford Fund.

In a statement, Mr Hunt sad he was delighted that Mr Andrew, who has a long association with the Murray-Darling Basin issues, had agreed to serve as the new chair.

He said the former Liberal MP had considerable expertise in both public sector governance and irrigated agriculture and will make a valuable contribution as authority’s chair.

“He is highly capable and I have every confidence he will do an outstanding job of leading the Authority in working with Basin communities, businesses and governments in implementing the Basin Plan,” he said.

Mr Baldwin said Mr Andrew’s appointment would provide strong oversight for the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time.

“I would like to thank the former Parliamentary Secretary, Simon Birmingham, for the work he undertook in the first 16 months in government to set Basin Plan implementation on a path that ensures a balanced approach,” he said.

“The water recovery strategy developed by the Abbott government during this time clearly identifies that one of the fundamental priorities for our government is to ensure the Murray-Darling’s food and fibre industries remain vibrant and sustainable.

“The Abbott government is committed to supporting communities, while maintaining the ongoing health of the river system on which these communities rely.

“Minister Hunt and I will be working closely with Mr Andrew and members of the MDBA on key water reforms being pursued by the Australian Government, including the Basin Plan.”

Baldwin set to visit the Basin

Mr Baldwin said one of his first priorities was to meet with Basin stakeholders and the community to “see what's happening in each jurisdiction”.

Mr Baldwin highlighted the progression of the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism, the Northern Basin Review and the 1500 gigalitre cap on buybacks as key areas for discussion with States and communities during his upcoming visits around the Basin.

He said certainty was one of the most important things the Commonwealth government can provide to Basin communities.

“I look forward to work with Minister Hunt and the new chair, Neil Andrew, to deliver this,” he said.

“I also look forward to continuing to build on the relationship with State ministers to develop further projects that benefit irrigated agriculture and the environment.

“We will deliver on our infrastructure promise, to provide a steady and predictable means of implementing the Basin Plan in the lead up to 2019.”

Knowles' 'world of water'

Mr Knowles became MDBA chair - replacing Mike Taylor – in early 2011, when water reform controversy dominated national headlines over the flawed formation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Mr Taylor resigned shortly after the MDBA released its guide to a draft Basin Plan in October 2010 - which proposed 3000 to 4000 gigalitres in Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).

That initial proposal suffered unprecedented backlash at community consultation meetings throughout the Basin amid fears water for farm production would be stripped from irrigation communities, to meet expanding environmental demands.

However, Mr Knowles received hefty praise for overseeing implementation of a final Basin Plan that passed parliament with bipartisan support, in the previous government along, with general stakeholder approval for a more balanced and realistic limit of 2750SDLs, in late 2012.

In an interview with Fairfax Media in November last year, Mr Knowles said he would continue working on his personal commercial and charitable interests after his MDBA stint concluded and would “happily keep an eye on the world of water”.

“I generally thank everyone for the opportunity and privilege to serve in a job for four years that I’ve enjoyed every minute of,” he said.

Mr Knowles said he would also leave behind a landscape for the MDBA and the Basin Plan that’s “fundamentally better than the landscape I inherited”.

“I think in the world of water, like many other worlds, there’s nothing wrong with leaving with people wanting a bit more, which is probably the right time to go,” he said.

“But I’m very satisfied that the next time we go into a big drought or severe conditions things will be more resilient and that resilience will last longer.

“Can we prevent droughts and floods and all the challenges that nature throws at us?

“No, of course we can’t.

“But the insurance policies we take out, like the Basin Plan, will stand us in good stead, I would think, for generations to come and I’m very comfortable in that.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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