Water war: rejuvenated Nationals spring Murray-Darling Basin demands on Liberals

An emboldened National party is flexing its muscle under returned leader Barnaby Joyce, demanding the Liberals adopt major changes to the Murray-Darling Basin plan as the two parties enter negotiations on a new Coalition agreement.

On Wednesday the Nationals blindsided Liberal colleagues by introducing amendments to a government bill to reduce environmental flows under the basin plan, revealing they had been secretly working on it for “months” in a bid to change government policy.

The proposed changes passed the Nationals party room on Monday, but were sprung on the senior Coalition partner, the Liberals, as amendments to a related water bill were debated in the Senate.

The Coalition divisions came to a head on Wednesday night when Liberals joined with Labor to roundly defeat two sets of amendments proposed by the Nationals.

Five Nationals voted for the amendments – Bridget McKenzie, Matt Canavan, Perin Davey, Susan McDonald and Sam McMahon – and they were joined by the One Nation representatives Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts.

Joyce is set to sit down with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, next week to lay out his demands under a new formal Coalition agreement. The basin plan changes are one of a number of issues expected to be canvassed, along with a net zero emissions target by 2050 and increased childcare subsidies.

The new Nationals leader has also indicated he will be pushing for a tougher government stance on China, telling the joint party room on Tuesday that this should be the most pressing priority for the government.

Joyce was one of a number of signatories on a recent letter demanding new arbitration measures for the half-Chinese owned Port of Newcastle, arguing current arrangements give the “Communist party of China a geopolitical advantage over the export of Australian coal’’.

As Nationals use the ascendency of Joyce to reassert their influence, MPs aligned to the new leader also spoke out strongly against a possible move to adopt a net zero emissions by 2050 target.

However, senior party figures – including Joyce – have not ruled out supporting the move, on the condition that regional communities “do not pay the bill”.

On Wednesday, the Nationals introduced amendments to change the Murray-Darling Basin Act to ban the government from buying back water from farmers to return it to the environment, and remove the requirement that 450 gigalitres be returned to the river unless it achieves “neutral or improved socio-economic outcomes”. They stipulate that no further water be taken when the basin plan concludes in 2024.

The Nationals’ Senate leader, McKenzie, denied that the fresh demands were related to Joyce’s return as leader, arguing they were months in the making.

She conceded that the party had “very different” views from the Liberals, and said that was the reason they had not consulted with their government partner on the amendments.

“If we had said four months ago, late last year, (that) if the Water Act and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan Act ever come before the Senate we will be moving amendments to it, it would never have happened. Because we have very different views.”

In Senate question time, the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, recommitted the government to the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin plan “in full and on time”.

Birmingham said that “when those amendments come to a vote, I and the government will be voting against [them]”.

The government’s nine South Australian Liberal MPs and senators sent a letter to Morrison on Wednesday evening calling for certainty for the plan.

“The certainty provided by full implementation of the basin plan is crucial to not only ensuring we have a sustainable river system, but that we have sustainable and productive river communities, including the ongoing production of high-quality food and fibre that the economy of many river communities depends upon,” the letter said.

“We appreciate your ongoing support for implementation of the basin plan.”

When asked if the Nationals should be stripped of the water portfolio given their position on the plan, Birmingham refused to say what would happen.

Later, Birmingham moved a gag motion, with Labor’s support, to set a 7.30pm deadline for the proposals to be put to a vote. The Nationals’ amendments were roundly defeated but not before acrimonious debate.

The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young told the upper house the Nationals’ amendments were “an attack from the water terrorists of the Coalition”. She said the Nationals “want to blow everything up” under Joyce’s renewed leadership.

The manager of government business in the Senate and South Australian Liberal minister, Anne Ruston, argued the government remained committing to delivering the Murray Darling Basin plan.

On Wednesday evening, the independent senator Rex Patrick asked Ruston whether the prime minister would remove Joyce from cabinet if he deviated from government support for the Murray Darling Basin plan.

Ruston replied: “Obviously the protocols and conventions that run the government remain in place and I don’t think anybody is deviating from those.”

Barnaby Joyce
Returned Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce will sit down with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, next week and the proposed Murray-Darling Basin plan changes are one of a number of issues set to be canvassed. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Labor, the Greens, Patrick and Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie also opposed the Nationals changes – warning they would shatter the hard-fought 2012 basin plan and harm communities in the downstream state, South Australia.

Labor and the crossbench said the demands were a test for Morrison, calling on him to reject them and strip the Nationals of the water portfolio.

The Nationals amendments were also categorically rejected by the South Australian Liberal government, which communicated its disappointment through the water minister, David Speirs, to the federal water minister, Keith Pitt, on Wednesday.

The Nationals point to the fact the basin plan has already recovered 2,100 gigalitres for the environment, out of the target of 2,750 gigalitres.

The additional 450 gigalitres promised to South Australia “was never guaranteed”, McKenzie told the Senate, but rather was always dependent on there being no adverse socio-economic impacts.

McKenzie told reporters environmental outcomes are “not about just dumping gigalitres of water” down the river, and similar outcomes could be achieved with smaller flows released “more slowly”.

The member for Nicholls, Damian Drum, told reporters the changes had been endorsed as Nationals policy and now need to become Coalition policy.

Earlier, the Labor leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, said that after replacing Michael McCormack as deputy prime minister Joyce had allowed the Senate Nationals to “attack” South Australia.

“Mr Morrison, this is a test for you,” Wong told the Senate.

At a press conference with other South Australian members, Sharkie said the Nationals approach would “blow up” the plan in order to secure water for “their irrigator mates”.

Patrick threatened if the amendments were not voted down he would refuse to take calls from government ministers, meaning they would be playing “Russian roulette” with his vote whenever they presented legislation to the Senate.