Minister for Agriculture is Best Placed in Charge of Water

I am very proud to be part of a coalition that takes a balanced view on all of these issues—on issues of water and the environment.

I believe the coalition has a great history and record of approaching issues in a balanced way that recognises that there are a number of trade-offs from time to time between environmental concerns and the need to support local communities and jobs, to maintain families on farms and our access to cheap and affordable food—something that we have always benefited from except for the very early times of the first settlers when they nearly starved to death.

We are lucky in this nation to have that access, and that requires a balanced approach. That approach, I think we should agree, should be based on the national interest, not on particular parochial interests of any individual state or any individual region. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be about managing the Murray-Darling for the entire nation, not for individual regions.

When individual senators want to speak only about concerns in their own area of the country, that is the very type of behaviour that caused us to have the problems in the Murray-Darling in the first place. We have had to take the kinds of actions and major policy departures from what we had before for the Murray-Darling, because individual states managed the system separately from each other and did not work together to coordinate.

I want to see a process that manages this system as a nation. I want to see a process that does not set Queenslanders against South Australians, New South Wales against Victorians or indeed environmentalists against farmers. I think the problem with the Labor Party is that they have no balance in this area. Some of them believe that every farmer is an environmental bandit who wakes up in the morning, trying to work out how they can destroy and despoil the wonderful environment we all enjoy here in this country. Nothing could be further from the truth, because it is our farmers and our farming communities who live in this environment. They are the ones who live on the river. They are the ones who rely on the river flowing all the time and who have the greatest interest of all in our nation to make sure the river remains healthy.

There is a great degree of vitriol and insinuation about the new minister for water resources, Barnaby Joyce. But you can say that he has actually lived on the Murray-Darling. He used to live on the Balonne River in St George. He now lives in New England in the Gwydir catchment in the Murray-Darling Basin. He understands the system and he was also shadow minister for water for more than three years during the time when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was agreed to—and it had to be agreed to by both parties to get through this chamber. It was a disallowable instrument and it could have been disallowed by either side of this chamber but it was supported by the coalition government. It was put forward by the Labor Party and supported with Barnaby Joyce as the shadow minister for water, so I am sure that he more than anyone else in the coalition will make sure it comes to fruition.

When the Labor Party started this process when they were in government, they got it wrong. Initially, they got it terribly wrong in 2010 when they released the Murray-Darling Basin Plan calling for 6,700 gigalitres to be reduced in usage in the basin, which caused great consternation. It was an incredibly unbalanced approach—even they would admit that now. They eventually implemented a plan that called for a reduction of 2,750 gigalitres—less than half the initial proposal.

That was a much more sensible process. That was a much more sensible plan. Our job now is to make sure we implement water reform, implementing a triple bottom line in a way which protects the environment absolutely but also protects farming communities, jobs and our ability to grow food and create wealth for our nation. Many of the issues that go to the implementation of the plan go to very detailed considerations in those catchments and areas.

Just recently we had a Senate committee in one of these catchments—in St George, the most important irrigation community in the Murray-Darling system Queensland. Those complex details were very stark and, unfortunately, there were no representatives from the Labor Party or the Greens at those hearings to hear those things in detail; however, those are the kinds of issues and complexities that could be dealt with considerably better, I think, with an agriculture minister in charge of water going forward.

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