BARNABY Joyce has downplayed concerns about meeting his expanded ministerial obligations after his portfolio responsibilities virtually doubled overnight.
The Nationals leader and NSW MP has been Agriculture and Water Resources Minister since the 2013 federal election and Deputy Prime Minister since replacing Warren Truss in February last year.
Mr Joyce has an assistant minister in NSW Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker to help back those ministerial roles and responsibilities.
But the shock ministry resignation of Nationals’ rising star and Queensland Senator Matthew Canavan last night - while the High Court determines if he’s eligible to remain in parliament or not following revelations of his dual citizenship, after his mother signed him up for an Italian passport about 12 years ago - has added to Mr Joyce’s already hefty political agenda.
Mr Joyce will now take over Mr Canavan’s ministerial roles for Northern Australia and Resources.
Pressure has been applied early with National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) member - Farmers for Climate Action - saying Senator Canavan’s shock exit from cabinet created a “great opportunity” to shift focus for the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) away from the Adani coal project in Queensland, and towards agriculture.
Farmers for Climate Action claims to be a network of more than 2000 farmers and said Mr Joyce “now holds all the cards” given his new portfolio responsibilities and could move to allay environmental concerns, in particular around water, with Adani.
“In March this year Mr Joyce gave a speech urging superannuation funds to invest more in agriculture, noting that the sector was outperforming coal and iron ore,” the group’s chief executive Verity Morgan-Schmidt said.
“Now he has the opportunity to do exactly this, through advocating that NAIF funding focuses on removing the barriers to agricultural growth in Northern Australia.
“This is a great opportunity for the Deputy Prime Minister to stand up for his constituency and be a true champion for farmers and graziers.
“Right now, there is $5 billion up for grabs in federal funding towards infrastructure across Northern Australia.
“Funding which is desperately needed to overcome the barriers currently holding back agricultural productivity.
“With Barnaby in the role, he can do the right thing by his constituency and ensure this investment of public money supports agricultural innovation.”
Ms Morgan-Schmidt said a thriving rural sector was the “backbone” of sustainable prosperity and long term employment in regional Australia.
“Our future depends on reliable access to groundwater and food security, not in subsidising International billionaires and fossil fuels,” she said.
Asked today about his new workload following Senator Canavan’s resignation, Mr Joyce said “One thing I've never been accused of is being lazy and I'm going to make sure that this works”.
“We were up late last night and we've started early this morning to make sure that this process is as smooth as possible,” he said.
“Obviously with northern Australia, I was Senator for Queensland for eight years, seven months and a day - I understand Queensland very, very well.”
Mr Joyce conceded Northern Australia involved WA and the NT and was more than just Queensland and said he viewed resources as “another resource”.
“We will work hard and diligently and we will see this through,” he said.
“It's no different to if it was given to another minister.
“It resides in the National Party's section of the portfolio and the other thing I’d say is I don't think anybody doubts our capacity in the agricultural portfolio.”
Critics of the Adani coal mine have criticised Senator Canavan’s support for the project, and also called for a dedicated resources minister, while Labor has promised to separate agriculture and water resources in the ministry, if they come to office, at the next election.
NFF CEO Tony Mahar backed in the Deputy Prime Minister saying the Nationals leader had an understanding “better than most”, of the issues in the Resource and Northern Australia portfolios.
Mr Mahar said the situation with Senator Canavan was “a regrettable one - which hopefully, there can be a common sense resolution to, in the not-to-distant future”.
“I have every confidence that Minister Joyce, with the help of assistance ministers, will capably manage the extra responsibilities, until which time a more permanent solution is in place,” he said.
Joyce backs Canavan’s “exemplary character”
Mr Joyce said Senator Canavan was “a person of exemplary character who he was “ very close to” and had known for years.
He said it was an “incredibly difficult time” for Senator Canavan and his family including his mother.
Mr Joyce said the first he knew about the citizenship issue was around about the 18th of this month.
“But it was without a shadow of a doubt that we never believed that this would be the chain of events, because this has happened without his consent and he was 25 years old at the time - and without his knowledge,” he said.
“He never signed a form and, of course, one would presume that if something happens without your knowledge, and without your consent, then it's probably an invalid process.”
Mr Joyce said everyone was surprised when they found out Senator Canavan was registered as an Italian citizen but “That's not saying that the registration is valid - that's still got to be checked”.
“You can use the hypothetical that if Libya decided they were going to sign me up as a Libyan without my knowledge, that I would be Libyan, it's an absurdity,” he said.
“The High Court will look at this and we'll accept the verdict of the High Court - I'm sure it will get there ASAP.
“(this was) obviously something that was completely out of leftfield but we are dealing with it.
“I will take over all of Matt's duties and,…we have been last night - with all of Matt's staff, to make sure processes such as the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund and issues with regards to resources are dealt with prudently, promptly, and in a way that shows no hiccup in the machinery of government.
“I'm hoping that this thing is resolved as quickly as possible and then, after that, you know, we can…reassess the situation and hopefully get Matt back in to his job.
“But I don't think there's a person in Australia who, reading this, would say that there is any sort of malfeasance...it's nothing else but extraordinary events that have come so far from leftfield.
“I don't think there's one person who has met Matt Canavan who would say this person is anything but a very decent human being and an incredibly, competent politician and huge asset for our nation.”
Mr Joyce said he had not been “avert” in his statements with regards to Larissa Waters or Scott Ludlam – who were forced to resign from the Senate recently after also learning of dual citizenship – because he never thought they “deliberately or maliciously went out and did something that was wrong”.
“I think that they were caught by circumstance and this is another issue of precisely that - but the constitution is what the constitution is,” he said.
“It is written in black and white and it has to be complied with and where there is questions that need to be asked - and most certainly in Matt Canavan's case, that is definitely the issue - that those questions will be asked.
“But they'll be asked by people vastly more competent than me and that would be the High Court of Australia.”
Mr Joyce said Senator Canavan had stated to him that he did not complete any forms – relating to his Italian citizenship.
“It was a discussion the family had and he thought that's where it's rested. I think they've found the forms and they're unsigned,” he said.
“I think it was back in 2005 and any person with memories of things in 2005 has to be given some latitude.
“From what has been conveyed to me, he had no interest in becoming an Italian citizen.”
Mr Joyce was also asked any change in the constitution – mooted following the dual citizenship controversy - was “exceedingly difficult” and required, basically, unanimous support across all parties.