FEDERAL Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce has vigorously defended his central role in the recent inflammation of political angst over the Murray Darling Basin Plan’s implementation.
In an interview with Fairfax Agricultural Media, Mr Joyce said he’d only given an “honest appraisal” of what was actually contained in the Act that underpins the Basin Plan and its water recovery targets.
He said section 7.17(2)(b) specified neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes were needed to deliver an additional 450gigalitres of environmental water flows to South Australia.
The agreement also talks about the need for alternative arrangements, proposed by a Basin State and assessed by that State as achieving water recovery with neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes.
However, Mr Joyce said his attempt to raise a practical discussion about alternative solutions, with SA Water Minister Ian Hunter at a recent ministerial council meeting, had led to an angry outburst that escalated to further political brinkmanship in Canberra this week by the Opposition and SA Senator Nick Xenophon.
He said to achieve delivery of the 450GLs, the legislation provided clear instruction that the socio-economic impacts had to be either neutral or bring about an improvement.
“Therefore it has to be demand driven and therefore people have to want to participate in it,” he said.
“I thought I did the right thing by being open and transparent and contacting the SA minister and saying, ‘let’s have a discussion about this’ but what I got was a mouthful of abuse and screamed at and then of course, other people ran with it as they choose.
“I’m only ventilating no more than the concerns that I hear throughout the Basin from SA to Queensland that we should sit down and have a sensible conversation because quite frankly, the Act as it’s written, it’s not impossible, but it creates massive difficulties as to how you bring this to a conclusion.
“I suppose the alternative is you just don’t worry about it and let someone else deal with it sometime down the track.”
This week, Senator Xenophon claimed a victory that resulted from talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, to strengthen accountability measures and oversight of the Basin Plan’s implementation.
The topic will be elevated to first minister’s level at COAG twice a year along with a separate and comprehensive cross-portfolio Senate estimates process twice a year.
Mr Joyce said despite Senator Xenophon’s criticisms, water policy remained within the federal agriculture portfolio, as per the Coalition agreement, and any change would require its renegotiation.
But he said he was “quite happy” for Mr Turnbull to talk to Mr Weatherill about the Basin Plan or water policy, just like he would speak with NSW Premier Mike Baird or Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on any range of issues.
“The Prime Minister, by default, doesn’t actually hold the (water) portfolio but he has the capacity to roam over all portfolios,” he said.
“If they want to bring it up as an item at COAG why would I have a problem with that?
“If someone comes back with a reasonable suggestion I’d have no problem with that.
“As I said in my letter right at the start (to Mr Hunter), if people can find something that doesn’t create a problem then why would I have a problem with that – providing it complies with 7.17(2)(b).”
Mr Joyce said he was mainly looking to Mr Hunter to provide practical suggestions and solutions on how the 450GLs of water could be delivered, according to the Basin Plan’s legislative requirements.
“There’s no point screaming at somebody; you need to come up with suggestions for solutions,” he said.
Mr Joyce said since the issue erupted following Mr Hunter’s outburst - that saw him counselled by Mr Weatherill for the use of bad language - three solutions had been suggested.
He said one was to reduce evaporation at Menindee Lakes but that was already being done and was part of the Plan.
He said if that water saving was added to the 450GL’s, it would then need to be taken out of the Basin Plan’s base-line target of 2750GLs.
“Either way we’re already doing it and that box has already been ticked - same with the Barmah Choke - that issue has already been calculated,” he said.
“Then they bring up Yarrawonga which could never be part of the 450GLs - it’s not part of the calculations and is not delivering new water back into the system.
“So then you ask, ‘what else have you got up your sleeve, what other ideas have you got?’ and you get two responses.
“One is silence and the other is they abuse you and that’s not a positive or rational conversation.”
Mr Joyce has also come under fire from SA Labor politicians and former Environment and Water Minister Tony Burke who oversaw the Basin Plan being signed into law in 2012.
But the Nationals leader said Mr Burke had only been “screaming” about the issue but had not provided any solutions while other people had been “grasping at this for the purpose of dissent rather than for the purposes of negotiation”.
Mr Joyce said he expected things to eventually settle down back down again and had until 2024 to implement the 450GLs component, of the Basin Plan.
“But I always believe that if you see an issue you should discuss it,” he said.
“And by the way not one person has said it’s not an issue but not one person has told me what the solution is but I’m all eyes and ears.”
Under the intergovernmental agreement on implementing the Basin Plan the government has committed a further $1.58 billion to recover 450GLs of environmental water which has included $200 million to address physical, institutional and operational constraints.
The agreement included a commitment to work with the Basin States on the design and implementation of water efficiency savings measures and related projects, including on-farm measures – all focussed on neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes.
National Irrigators' Council CEO Ton Chesson said his group welcomed the announcement of additional scrutiny and accountability measures on the Basin Plan’s implementation, achieved by Senator Xenophon, as a “positive outcome”.
“As this week has again highlighted anything which improves Senators and other State and federal politicians understanding of water issues in the Murray Darling Basin can only be a good thing,” he said.
Former Labor Water Minister and SA Senator Penny Wong criticised Senator Xenophon’s agreement with the Coalition, saying he’d broken a promise to not deal with any government legislation unless total Basin Plan water delivery measures to SA were guaranteed.
But she said the Independent Senator had voted with the government without that guarantee and got a good headline, but not a single drop of water for SA.
Senator Xenophon said talk about him holding the nation to ransom due to his hard-line stance on ensuring the 450GLs was “absurd”.
He said he supported a “fundamental principle” of doing the “right thing” by the environment, irrigators and the entire Murray Darling Basin and progress on the Basin Plan was “fundamentally” needed, to avoid any stalling.
“It is going to take a nuanced and dare I say it agile approach to deal with these matters,” he said while highlighting Mr Turnbull’s involvement in negotiations with the Basin states that have strained in recent weeks, rather than Mr Joyce.
Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm chaired last year’s inquiry into the Murray Darling Basin Plan and said he was “absolutely disgusted” with Senator Xenophon’s stand which he says will cause “serious suffering” in rural communities in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.