The Nationals have split from their Liberal Coalition partners during a Senate vote, in a bold move that could blow up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and ensure that less water will be returned to the environment from farming.
- Nationals senators are seeking to change legislation their Lower House colleagues introduced
- The Senate bid has seen the Nationals break away from their Liberal Coalition partners
- Labor and the Greens say the change is the result of Barnaby Joyce’s leadership
Nationals senators abandoned the party’s Cabinet ministers and their Liberal colleagues, putting amendments to legislation that would effectively rewrite the plan and prevent the Commonwealth from buying water rights from irrigators.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was legislated in 2012, with bipartisan support across the Commonwealth and basin states, to provide more water for the environment.
Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, who is expected to be promoted to Cabinet by new party leader Barnaby Joyce later this week, is leading the charge in the Senate to change the plan.
Sources have told the ABC that Senator McKenzie wants the water portfolio as part of her promotion, something Labor senators have sought to highlight in countering the Nationals’ push in the Upper House.
The Senate amendments relate to a bill to establish an independent inspector-general of water compliance to monitor the plan and provide independent oversight.
The bill was overseen by Water Minister Keith Pitt, a Queensland Nationals MP who sits in the Lower House. Nationals in the Lower House backed the original legislation Mr Pitt brought to the Parliament.
The Nationals senators’ proposed changes include:
- That 450 gigalitres of water should not be required by legislation to be returned to the environment
- That the Commonwealth not be allowed to buy back any more water rights from irrigators
- That the deadline for water-saving projects be extended “to 2024 and beyond”, and new projects considered.
Mr Pitt has previously said the federal government will not support any more water buybacks, but it has never been legislated.
In a statement to the ABC this morning, Mr Pitt said: “This [the proposed Senate amendments] is a policy of the Nationals party room, I am a member of Cabinet and I support the government’s position.”
Leader of the Government in the Senate Simon Birmingham, who is also from South Australia, told Senate question time that the government would be voting against the National Party’s proposed amendments.
“Yes, it is the case that when those amendments come to a vote, I and government will be voting against those amendments,” Senator Birmingham said.
“We are proud as a government to have ensured that billions and billions, thousands of billions of litres of additional water entitlement have been secured to support environmental flows across the Murray-Darling Basin. The government stands resolute in its support for the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as we have said, in full and on time.”
Opposing the amendments in the chamber, South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Mr Joyce had declared war against her state.
“The whole reason we need an inspector-general and a tough cop on the beat is because of blokes like Barnaby Joyce,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“We have the National Party in the Senate moving amendments that take water out of the river system, from the environment, to give to the big corporate irrigators and leave South Australia running dry.”
Labor’s Penny Wong, a South Australian senator, said the Nationals were an embarrassment for the Liberals and called on Mr Joyce to ensure that water policy was not part of the Coalition agreement.
“They don’t want to restore the basin to health, they just want to play to their constituencies, the upstream irrigation communities, and they want to lie to them, and pretend that things can be as they were, but they can’t…. we have to change,” Senator Wong said.
Nationals Victorian MPs Damian Drum and Anne Webster joined with senators Perin Davey and Bridget McKenzie to draft the amendments, and hope they will go to a Senate committee for consideration before a final vote in August.
Mr Drum said they had been planning to oppose the legislation before Mr Joyce was elected as the party’s leader on Monday.
“We’ve got this to a situation where the legislation and the amendments to it are robust and fit for purpose, and now we need to see it through,” Mr Drum said.
“Our next step is to make this Coalition policy, so we need the Liberal Party to come on board with these amendments at their earliest opportunity. Once we get that, and this becomes Coalition policy, we will have a lot of work to do to win over the crossbench in the Senate, but that’s simply the steps we have to take to stop the pain and damage and detriment that’s been inflicted upon our communities”.
South Australia’s Liberal water minister David Speirs said he had spoken with Mr Pitt to “express my disappointment in this stunt by the National Party”.
“The Marshall Liberal government categorically rejects the amendments put forward in the Senate,” he said.
Earlier this week, the Nationals voted against their Coalition partners in the Senate when Labor put a motion that the Senate support the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time.
Following that motion, New South Wales senator Perin Davey said the Nationals senators’ vote was “really a matter of annoyance”.
“That 450 gigalitres is dependent on a social and economic neutrality test, so we don’t believe you can deliver it in full and on time if you apply that test because the social and economic damage has been done,” she said.
A meeting of state and federal water ministers in December 2018 agreed that up 450 gigalitres would only be returned to the environment if it would not have a negative socio-economic impact on river communities, based on criteria agreed to by the states.
The ABC has contacted Mr Joyce for comment.