SOUTH Australian Water Minister Ian Hunter has been embarrassingly kicked out of a federal Senate committee inquiry hearing by a fellow federal Labor colleague who has now labelled the state minister a “clown” and his actions a “political stunt”.
Western Australian federal Labor Senator Glenn Sterle was angered at Mr Hunter’s attempts to disrupt and politicise a public hearing in Adelaide yesterday of an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, into water compliance issues in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The inquiry was established in August to examine explosive and serious allegations raised in media reporting earlier this year of water theft, and potential threats to the integrity of monitoring systems that may be undermining the multi-billiuon dollar Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Senator Sterle is a long-serving Committee member and co-chair and said Mr Hunter had sought to contact the Committee’s secretariat to appear at the Adelaide hearing but was officially refused due to a long-standing, unofficial policy of not allowing grandstanding politicians to disrupt the process.
But the SA minister turned up anyway accompanied by a media throng, sending the Committee hearing into a tail-spin.
“On my committee, when it was being co-chaired by (former NSW Liberal Senator) Bill Heffernan and myself, and now (Queensland Nationals Senator) Barry O’Sullivan and myself, we’ve always had an unwritten agreement between us that we want to do what’s best for the bush, what’s best for rural and regional Australia and our food producers and farmers,” he said.
“I refuse to have members of parliament come to the Committee – I’m not interested in political grand standing.
“I want to hear from the experts and locals and the people who are living it and breathing it.
“Members of parliament have all sorts of opportunities to get their message across.
“Last week this clown wrote to the secretariat – he wanted to appear and I said, through the secretariat, ‘No, we don’t have members of parliament appear so with respect, we’ll decline and won’t give him the opportunity’.
“Then I’m told his chief of staff called up and went crook at the secretariat and I said ‘Well they can ring me or the minister can ring me and I’ll explain why we don’t have members of parliament appear before the Committee’.
“But anyway, he turns up out of the blue at the hearing in Adelaide and you don’t think he got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
“So to cut a long story short, I threw him out.”
Senator Sterle said he allowed Mr Hunter’s opening statement to be read out by a member of the SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources who was formally listed and permitted to appear at the hearing and give evidence.
But he said the minister’s statement was “a clear political attack”.
“If people want to attack political parties that’s fine – I have no problem with that – but I wasn’t interested in listening to a political spiel,” he said.
Senator Sterle said the statement raised allegations around links to the Nationals and political donations while referring to the party’s leader and former Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
“It was just a f….. waffle,” he said.
“But at the end of the day he (Mr Hunter) didn’t get to waste our time on the Committee doing that and I was right in my pre-emptive thoughts about what he’d carry on about.
“I didn’t have any direct insight into it but have been told the bloke is a dick anyway.”
Senator Sterle said Senator O’Sullivan “absolutely spat it” also, on the day and has stood aside from the Committee process over another incident.
Senator O’Sullivan has recused himself from the inquiry process, until Greens SA Senator Sarah Hanson-Young publicly retracts comments she made in the media, referring to a “protection racket” for the Nationals, relating to water allocation in the Basin.
Senator Sterle said Senator O’Sullivan was within his rights to defend his own party and stressed it wasn’t the Committee’s job to investigate alleged political corruption in regards to water use, which was instead being handled by an ICAC inquiry.
“We want to dig down on how we can best come up with a fantastic report and we’re even going to go out to Brewarrina for a public hearing,” he said.
“We’re going to do this properly and come back with some rock solid recommendations on how we can improve the lot out there in enforcement and metering and monitoring of water use in the Murray Darling Basin.
“I’m not interested in political stunts and it was a stunt.
“Ian Hunter turned up at the hearing with Channel 2, Channel 7 – all the cameras and the written media were all there, but they weren’t there to see me.”
Brewarrina is a focal point of the Committee’s inquiry where irrigators along the Barwon and Darling river section in NSW are alleged to have illegally extracted water for cotton and farm production, which was intended for environmental use in the Basin Plan.
Those allegations are already being investigated in multiple inquiries triggered after the claims were first raised on ABC Four Corners in late July.
Senator O'Sullivan returned to Queensland yesterday abruptly after the inquiry was disrupted and he caught wind of Senator Hanson-Young’s media comments.
Senator O'Sullivan said the Green Senator’s comments had undermined the Committee’s inquiry process.
“I have proudly served and prided itself for a very long time on being collegiate and always striving to work in the best interest of rural and regional Australia,” he told AAP.
“These comments are not in the spirit of this committee and the work it does.”
Senator Hanson-Young’s office has been contacted for comment.
Senator Sterle said the Committee also conducted a public inquiry at Broken Hill on Wednesday where some valuable evidence was gathered, to inform the examination and reporting process in terms of the inquiry’s core themes.
“If you take away this clown, this idiot, that’s an oxygen thief (Mr Hunter), SA is exemplary in the way that they manage, monitor and metre water, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.
“The southern end of the Basin is doing the right thing – every now and then they have little outbreaks and little episodes and someone might take a bit more water but they’re onto it straight away and it’s all open and above board.
“But in the top end of the Basin, it’s like the wild west.”
Mr Hunter said Senator Sterle, “has just shown that this inquiry has absolutely no intention of getting to the bottom of water corruption and theft”.
“It underlines why we need to have an independent Royal Commission into the allegations first raised on Four Corners,” he said.
Mr Hunter told ABC outside the hearing that it was extraordinary the federal Committee would not want to hear from the SA government and that it was “an absolute farce – I don't even know why they're here”.
Of the public submissions to the inquiry, there are none form the SA government or Mr Hunter published on its website, to date.