Federal Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce copped a bit of stick from his parliamentary colleagues following last month’s ministerial reshuffle that saw the little-known Queensland backbencher David Littleproud elevated to the key agriculture ministry. He was promoted to the front bench at the expense of Victorian Darren Chester, who was sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik to placate Queensland party concerns about under-representation in cabinet.
Such is the transitory nature of life on Capital Hill, but perhaps the elevation of Littleproud to the Agriculture and Water ministry (previously held by Joyce) will in time be seen as an inspired move. Much will depend upon his handling of the water side of his portfolio, now the focus of intense national debate as the game-changing Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) enters a critical phase.
On the face of it (although I’ve been wrong before in my Nationals character assessments), Littleproud should come to the job ideally equipped for the tasks ahead. Born and raised at Chinchilla, the son of a former Queensland parliamentarian, he has worked for 20 years in agribusiness banking, servicing clients at a range of locations from Warwick to Charleville. As such, one would hope, he not only has a firm grasp of agricultural issues, but also a keen sense of the “people” side of agriculture, and will view his portfolio responsibilities through a prism that gives socio-economic factors their due weighting.
This understanding will be all-important in the context of the debate now raging about how – and indeed, whether – NSW, Victoria and Queensland should deliver a further 450 gigalitres of so-called “upwater” to South Australia. Littleproud has pledged to honour the plan (of which this 450GL is a commitment) “on time (by 2024) and in full”, but he is also keenly aware of the human cost of the plan thus far, and shares his leader’s concerns about imposing further hardships. All the evidence suggests that after five years of the MDBP, the health of the river system is improving, and investment is flowing back into the region, but this is only one side of the coin. On the other, we see that soaring prices for irrigation water have turned large areas of former family-owned dairy and rice farms back to dryland usage, while the available water is gobbled up by corporate mega-farms growing high-value walnuts and cotton.
Irrigation in this country has always been driven by social ideals as well as “national development” considerations - as a means of populating the regions, and creating sustainable communities. Since the MDBP began to bite, we have seen this noble ideal thrown into reverse, as farms are abandoned and once-vibrant communities wither for want of affordable water. It’s a big call for a “rookie” minister, but it’s up to Littleproud to engender a spirit of compromise among the warring states to enable the MDBP to achieve acceptable goals without inflicting more pain.
- Peter Austin