ASSISTANT Agriculture and Water Resources Minister and Liberal Senator Anne Ruston has taken a swipe at the SA government for playing "stupid political games" with farmers’ lives and says they should be called out for it.
Senator Ruston objected fiercely to her home state’s parliament passing a motion by one vote in the Upper House last week, to extend its ban on commercial Genetically Modified crop production into the middle of the next decade.
The move to increase the existing moratorium by six years is now expected to win approval in the Lower House - but it was slammed by farmers and other critics as an ideological political decision, devoid of genuine scientific or economic justification.
However, the GM ban extension adds insult to injury coming immediately after the SA parliament also passed a Green’s motion - with Labor’s backing - demanding the federal government split the water and agriculture portfolios in its ministerial allocations.
Agriculture and water were merged into the one ministry, like it is in other jurisdictions, with Barnaby Joyce becoming the senior minister responsible for the expanded federal portfolio, when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister in late 2015.
That policy coupling was reaffirmed in subsequent Coalition agreements to reflect a long-held view by the Nationals to improve the bureaucratic focus of water-use as a basic resource to enhance farming and economic production.
However, federal Labor has pledged to split-off and return water to environmental policy if they're elected and a new government is formed; a reversal the SA parliament backed earlier in the Greens’ motion.
SA water Minister Ian Hunter's public and private contradictions on water policy have also been a source of escalating frustration for Senator Ruston.
That angst is present on Murray Darling Basin Plan water use which is an emotive topic in metropolitan Adelaide where parochial anti-northern Basin rhetoric, especially targeted at irrigators, is likely to impact more voters in the state’s delicate power structure.
Mr Hunter was recently kicked out of a federal Senate Committee hearing in Adelaide by his federal Labor Senator Glenn Sterle for interrupting proceedings; a move that earned him the label of “clown” for what the WA Senator said was a political “stunt”.
Last week, Mr Hunter said the SA government would support the motion to split water and agriculture federally, saying it was a “common sense proposition”.
“We understand the Prime Minister is in a tight spot and relies on a one seat majority in the federal parliament and he's essentially been blackmailed (by the Nationals) to hand over the keys to all the goodies,” he told ABC in reference to Mr Joyce’s by-election due to his citizenship disqualification.
But Senator Ruston said her immediate reaction to the SA parliament’s demands was that it wasn’t the place of any member of the SA parliament, or any other parliament, “to start dictating to a member of any other parliament on how they should allocate their portfolios or to whom”.
“I’m sure (SA Premier) Jay Weatherill would be equally as dismissive if I, Barnaby Joyce or Malcolm Turnbull started telling him how he should allocate his portfolios or how he should put them together,” she said.
“But I would say, this is just another example of South Australia, and in this instance the Greens, playing politics with something that is far too important to play politics with.
“It was clearly another political game to try to see if they could wedge the Coalition and the Liberal Party in South Australia (politically) and I think it’s in nobody’s best interests to do so.”
Senator Ruston said it wasn’t about where portfolios resided in the federal ministry but about the quality of legislative “instruments” that have oversight on outcomes and the implementation of important policies like the Basin Plan and the Water Act.
“We have the Murray Darling Basin Plan and the Water Act and we have a series of inter-governmental arrangements in place that protect what’s happening with the river at the moment,” she said.
“That’s what we should be focussing on and not playing stupid political games.
“I continue to be disappointed that my productive discussions with Ian Hunter are contradicted by what’s playing out in the media domain.
“On one hand he seems to be quite willing to work constructively with me to make sure that we deliver the Basin Plan in full, which is what we both want.
“And I haven’t heard anyone say they don’t want the plan to be delivered.
“But then on the other side of it they’re coming out with all these political stunts or making comments that undermine the plan – whether they’re from Ian Hunter or the Greens – which just further undermines everybody’s capacity to deliver this plan.”
Ruston: “stupid political football”
Senator Ruston said the Basin Plan wasn’t “new” and had been under discussion in public and political debate for “many, many years”.
But she said “to be playing stupid political football because it’s politically expedient to do so leading up to an election, I think reflects really badly on the people who are doing it.”
A similar theme exists on GM crops in regards to the political antics of the SA parliament and the impact on farmers, she said.
“Absolutely every time any of these controversial issues come before us you just need to base everything you do or say on science because the science will always protect you,” she said.
“I’ve heard the SA government suggest that the state’s farmers gain some sort or marketing competitive advantage from being GM-free.
“If they can demonstrate that our farmers are actually getting a premium price at the farm-gate because they are GM free then I think our farmers would be a lot more welcoming and accepting of the concept (of the GM moratorium).
“But my understanding is most of our farmers don’t believe that they are getting any advantage, so therefore I think they need to take it up to the SA government and call them out and say ‘unless you can demonstrate that there is an advantage in what we’re doing from a marketing perspective, there’s no science to support what you’re doing’.
“You have to be really clear and transparent about why you’re doing something like banning GM crops, but that’s not something that the SA government is renowned for.”
Senator Ruston also rejected Mr Hunter’s accusations that Mr Turnbull was being “blackmailed” by Mr Joyce over water policy, in allocating federal portfolios.
“I don’t agree with what was said on any premise, in relation to that point,” she said.
“The Murray Darling Basin and the water that flows within it, and the assets it supports, the river itself, is a shared asset that belongs to all Australians,” she said.
“Nobody has any greater claim on it, not the environmentalists, not the irrigators, not the communities.
“It’s a resource that’s shared by everybody, just like the fish in the sea are owned by everybody in Australia.
“Some very strong protections have been put in place by the Basin Plan to make sure that the environmental sustainability of the river is ensured into the future.
“The interests of the environmental stakeholders have been very, very strongly recognised in the Basin Plan and the Water Act.
“Equally the socio-economic impacts of the Basin Plan’s implementation recognise the irrigators and the river communities.
“But to be fair, this is a productive resources for all Australians and now that we have the environment protected, through those instruments, it is incumbent on all governments to maximise the economic opportunity of this resource that’s owned by all Australians, for all Australians.
“To put agriculture into water under the circumstances we’ve seen I think is a very, very sensible place for it to be because it is something that generates massive economic activity for Australia and massive economic benefits not just for the people in the river communities but for all Australians.
“It is incumbent on us as a federal government, and state governments, to make sure we return the best economic value that we can for the water that we have agreed, can be extracted for productive use, from out of the river.”
Senator Ruston also cautioned against uncoupling the water and agriculture portfolios, as promised by Labor.
“It really comes back to the instruments that look after the portfolio,” she said.
“I’d like to see water stay in agriculture - that’s where it belongs - recognising that it doesn’t actually matter that much where it is, so long as it’s being looked after so it’s a sustainable resource into the future in the same way forestry and fisheries are resources that we need to ensure are sustainable.
“It’s the instruments you use to look after and manage it, rather than which minister looks after it.”
O’Sullivan: “pure political stunt”
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan said Mr Hunter’s antics at the recent hearing of the Senate Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into compliance issues with Murray Darling Basin Water was “a pure political stunt”.
“Mr Hunter had no intention of making any contribution and in fact, I can’t comment on evidence given in camera, but he went to read a statement into the hearing but he might as well have used the statement as notepaper and given it to his kids to draw pictures on the back of it,” he said.
“Nothing in the contribution that he was going to make, or that he attempted to make, was of any use to the inquiry – it was just a media stunt.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he was “nearly” ready to return to the Committee proceedings after leaving the Adelaide hearing early, in disgust at comments made by SA Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
“I put out a public challenge to Senator Hanson-Young to withdraw allegations that somehow the committee’s a protection racket for the National Party,” he said.
“When she’s done that and we’ve restored the confidence and credibility of that committee I’ll go back.
“But the thing is; the Greens don’t want answers to the questions that we’re asking in the committee.
“They‘re only happy when they’re unhappy and they’ll only be happy when there’s not one drop of water drawn out of the river; not just for irrigation but agricultural activity on the banks of the Murray Darling.
“If they had their way, they’d have riparian areas of 5kms off the river and you wouldn’t be able to do anything within 5kms of every artery that fed into the river.
“They’ll do anything they can to stop probative inquiries like this one because it doesn’t suit them to have the results of an inquiry perhaps support some of the concepts around irrigation in the Murray Darling.”
Senator Ruston also issued a media statement quoting Mr Weatherill recently on the GM ban issue where he said, “the truth is there are not a lot of votes out there in country South Australia for us, so in some ways we are free of the electoral imperatives about this”.
She said the GM bans extension placed SA farmers at a “considerable disadvantage on an ideological fancy of a Premier who neglects regional areas of the State because, in his own disgusting words, there aren’t a lot of votes for him”.
“It further threatens South Australia’s agricultural research sector,” she said.
“Research dollars will bypass SA, seeking more open-minded states which don’t play politic games with the livelihoods of farming families.
“This is utterly cynical hypocrisy from the SA Labor government, which is investing millions of dollars in genetic modification to produce sterile male Queensland fruit flies with a commercial focus, but refuses to let SA farmers utilise the same technology themselves.
“Unless the Premier can provide unequivocal evidence there’s a clear commercial advantage for South Australia’s farmers with his extended GM ban, he needs to allow them access to the same GM technology being used profitably and harmlessly by farmers in other Australian states.”
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) said it was “dismayed at the “short-sighted and ill-informed” ban.
NFF President Fiona Simson said the move to continue the moratoria on GM crops until 2025 would, “without a doubt”, curtail the fortunes of the State's grain growers.
“The actions by the SA Upper House effectively puts the State's growers behind their national counterparts and, of equal concern, behind their international competitors,” she said.
“Frustratingly, the decision is at odds with established science and economic modelling and was made, unbelievably, without any consultation with the farm sector.
“It is certainly a disappointing situation when a government doesn't bother to consult with the people that its decisions will most affect.”
Ms Simson said the science was clear – food from genetically modified crops was as safe as that derived from conventional crops.
She said ability for GM and non-GM crops to coexist has long been demonstrated both in Australia and overseas, and therefore the claimed benefits of the moratoria would be able to be achieved even in the presence of GM crops.
“Differing regulation in states remains a huge concern and this is a clear example of where Governments are overriding the views of farmers,” she said.