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The Murray-Darling: a complex river system with a complex set of regulations to match. AAP Image/Caroline Duncan Photography

Giving water policy to the Nationals could trigger a logjam of bureaucracy

In coming to a renewed coalition agreement with the National party, new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has reportedly agreed that matters relating to water will move into the agriculture portfolio, although the exact details of what has been agreed are yet to be announced.

What we have seen is a happy agriculture minister in Barnaby Joyce, while irrigators and environmental interests have taken predictably opposing positions on the deal, illustrating a lack of a shared view on water use among these groups, at least in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin.

What more can be said about the reported proposal at this point?

First, given that the cap on water buybacks was this week agreed by the parliament, this policy will not change. With the 1,500-gigalitre buyback cap almost reached, it will be interesting to see how the government accrues the remaining environmental water needed to reach the sustainable diversion limits, and at what cost. This is an area that will potentially renew tensions between the irrigators and environmental groups if it is not handled sensitively.

Second, if the agriculture minister ends up taking responsibility for the Water Act 2007, it would probably have several important implications. Implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would fall to the Agriculture Minister, as would the job of overseeing Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the independent body entrusted with implementing the Basin Plan. It would also mean that much of the water bureaucracy in the Environment Department would be transferred to the Agriculture Department.

The implementation of the Basin Plan is likely to be anything but straightforward. It involves ensuring adherence to the new, reduced sustainable irrigation limits that are already agreed but not yet implemented. It also involves implementing water planning in a comprehensive way that has never been seen before in the Basin. This planning is a key element in ensuring an end to the environmental degradation seen in many areas of the Basin in recent decades.

Key aspects of implementing the Basin Plan are scheduled to occur after the next election. They will need a steady hand to deliver the outcomes sought from the water reform process. The upcoming appointment of a new chief executive for the MDBA will be a key point to watch. What is needed now is to ensure that all interests – social, economic, environmental and political – are treated in a mature way. Some parts of the water responsibility would be a poor fit for the Department of Agriculture, for example the Commonwealth’s role in wetland management and in urban water issues. Urban water could perhaps be hived off into the Infrastructure Department, while wetland management responsibilities – many of which flow from international treaty obligations – would best remain where they are.

Third, the question of where the office of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) might end up is a little more problematic. This is a statutory position, which oversees use of the environmental water portfolio in terms set out in the Water Act. It is core business to the Environment Department, and one that relies on a significant amount of environmental science expertise.

The CEWH works with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, state environmental water holders, and communities within the Murray Darling Basin to optimise environmental outcomes from use of the water that accrues to its portfolio each year. But if the Water Act moves to the Agriculture Minister, this position and the Office of Water seem likely to move with it.

Fourth, under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, the environment minister is likely to remain the chief decision-maker on matters relating to the water trigger in relation to coal seam gas and large coal projects. The Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC) seems likely to remain within the environment portfolio, as its advice on water impacts goes to the environment minister (the EPBC Act decision-maker). The Office of Water Science, which supports the IESC, is in a similar position.

Ministerial moves

If changes are to be made, they will probably be a part of the wider government changes announced when the new ministry is unveiled next Monday, or shortly thereafter.

It is 100 years this November that the Commonwealth first ratified the first River Murray Waters Agreement. That compact was reached to ensure the protection of quite narrow state-based interests. Now, a century later, we need to assure the sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole. Throughout the region are communities that rely on using renewable resources wisely. There are important agricultural and irrigation interests, a growing tourism sector, and a gradual recognition of the importance of our natural environment. For all communities to thrive and to deliver outcomes to Australia as a whole, we need this valuable resource to be managed well.

There may be new risks that emerge from a new agreement between the Coalition partners, but a return to strong cabinet government will hopefully help to ensure that these risks can be well managed, and that the fears currently being expressed over the fate of our water are not realised.

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