October 24th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Labor proposes expanded role for infrastructure fund

CANBERRA OBSERVED Crossbench unity plugs Coalition water spill

EDITORIAL Deplorable attack on Sir Peter Lawler

LITIGATION Appeal to freedoms will not avail for Archbishop

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Europe generous in face of Middle-Eastern influx

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Europe's refugee crisis was much worse last time

CULTURE WARS The PC left is saving us from ... Tintin and Twain

SCIENCE AND CERTAINTY No safety in numbers as variable as these

EUTHANASIA Belgium, Netherlands in the grip of the small laws

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Marriage redefinition will feed government business

PUBLIC POLICY A wake-up call from land of rocky highs and lows

CINEMA Respectfully intended to make you laugh: The Intern

BOOK REVIEW Clearing the head


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Crossbench unity plugs Coalition water spill

News Weekly, October 24, 2015

The contentious issue of water has emerged as an early litmus test for the new Turnbull Government, resulting in a policy tug-of-war between the Liberal Party and its junior Coalition partner, the Nationals, over who should run water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Senator Anne Ruston.

The relationship between the two parties was always going to be testy under Mr Turnbull given the fractiousness with the Nationals during Mr Turnbull’s period as leader of the Liberals while in opposition.

However, with the prospect of a protracted drought in eastern Australia compounding the pain of already water-deprived irrigators in the Murray-Darling system, there was no mood for civilities when a “tricky plan” emerged on divvying up responsibilities in the agriculture portfolio in the new government.

By way of background, when Mr Turnbull originally signed the Coalition agreement with Nationals leader Warren Truss ahead of being sworn in as prime minister, a key provision in the (unprecedented) side letter to the agreement was that water was to be moved from the environment portfolio (previously under Greg Hunt) back to the agriculture portfolio (under Nationals deputy Barnaby Joyce).

Water had traditionally been an agriculture responsibility but was moved late in the Howard era under the umbrella environment under the then minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The Coalition agreement to move water from environment back to agriculture was greeted positively by farmers and by irrigator groups, though environmental groups and the Labor Party were much less happy.

However, Nationals MPs were furious after they later heard suggestions that Mr Turnbull was planning to split the water role in agriculture, giving the day-to-day administration of the role to the freshly appointed South Australian Liberal junior agriculture minister, Senator Anne Ruston.

Under the Turnbull plan, Agriculture Minister Joyce would be the overall responsible Cabinet minister, but his assistant minister, Senator Ruston, would have carriage of the day-to-day responsibilities on water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

In other words Senator Ruston would be the hands-on minister.

Senator Ruston is an irrigator herself, and has expertise in the horticulture industry. As a rural South Australian MP, she is knowledgeable about water.

However, the proposal to give Senator Ruston carriage of the day-to-day decision-making on water sent a shockwave through the ranks of the Nationals MPs because it would be tantamount to a rejection of the upstream irrigator interests in favour of South Australian interests.

While Nationals MPs led the charge, a game-breaker in the Coalition stand-off came with the intervention of the Senate crossbenchers, led by Victorian Senator John Madigan.

In a rare display of unity, Senator Madigan, together with fellow Victorian Ricky Muir, senators David Leyonhjelm from NSW, Glenn Lazarus from Queensland, Bob Day from South Australia and Dio Wang from Western Australia, called for Mr Joyce to be appointed as minister for water without delay.

Mr Madigan described the Murray-Darling Basin as being “in crisis” because of the removal of water from the agricultural production under the Basin Plan.

“That crisis affects our families in the Murray-Darling Basin, our communities, our small businesses,” Senator Madigan said. “If we’re not saving the environment for people, who are we saving it for?”

In the end Mr Turnbull appeared to concede to the sensible original position.

Prominent Liberal MP Sharman Stone, whose electorate sits in northern Victoria, also weighed in supporting the proposed move to place water under Mr Joyce’s responsibilities.

On the other hand, Labor supported the plan, describing it as a “tricky” move by Mr Turnbull, but one that needed to be supported.

In the end Mr Turnbull recognised the political reality and Mr Joyce won.

However, while the spat could be viewed as a storm in a teacup, the episode has set the scene for Coalition internal relations, and a Nationals party that is emerging as a less subservient Coalition partner than in previous times.

Mr Turnbull is still enjoying a honeymoon period as prime minister, but is quickly learning that he needs to compromise and consult, and that keeping the Coalition cohesive will require a degree of give and take.

The alternative route, an issue-by-issue internal brawl between the two parties until the next election, is not something Mr Turnbull wants to countenance.

On the positive side the decision also signals the likelihood of a more balanced approach to distribution of water in the Murray Darling Basin in favour of people rather than just in favour of environmental flows.

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