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Wednesday, 9 February 2011
Page: 241


Senator JOYCE (Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (2:28 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the very busy Senator Conroy! I refer the minister to reports this morning that the chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is seeking to establish a delivery group within the authority, allegedly to sideline the role of the existing board. Can the minister clarify whether the existing MDBA board, appointed by his government less than two years ago, continues to have the full confidence of his government?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —The government retains full confidence in the organisation. We have appointed a very capable chair after the departure of Mr Taylor and I am very confident, given the past record of Mr Knowles—not someone whom I have a great knowledge of—that the authority is in good hands and that there are none of the issues alleged in the newspaper today or alleged by you repeating them here in the chamber today, Senator Joyce. We know what your view on the Murray-Darling is. We know that it is not the same as the rest of your colleagues. We know that you have just deferred, have not taken a hard decision, your claimed spending cuts—a deferral of water buybacks. We know that those opposite are crying crocodile tears because you are absolutely not interested in finding a long-term solution. Those opposite are not interested in finding a long-term sustainable outcome.

As usual, you start off by saying, ‘Yes, we support this.’ In fact, you created it. But as soon as it comes to some of the tough issues, Senator Joyce, you have gone missing. Through you, Mr President, those opposite have gone missing. They talk the talk when in government, they talk the talk at first when they are in opposition; but they have run for cover when it comes to dealing with the substance of the debate in the Murray-Darling. It is very disappointing to yet again see Senator Joyce take the cheap, low political road and not want to engage in the substance of the debate. (Time expired)


Senator JOYCE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, we look forward to you being part of taking the high road in supporting our inquiry this afternoon. That might be a decision for you. In the meantime, can you please explain how the government can maintain that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority remains an independent authority when an ex-Labor minister mate, whom a Labor government has appointed, is appointing his own board, circumventing the members appointed under the act? Is this not just another example of the government losing control over water? You might want to confer with Minister Wong and corroborate your stories.


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —The appointment of Mr Knowles as the Chair of the MDBA provides greater certainty to communities affected by the proposed basin plan. Mr Knowles has 10 years experience as a state minister, including direct experience in the water portfolio.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator CONROY —As I said, 10 years experience including direct experience in the water portfolio and in other natural resource issues. Mr Knowles has a strong track record on water reform, including his work on the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Under Mr Knowles’s leadership, the MDBA shall advance the preparation of the draft basin plan with extensive consultation to take place with affected communities and governments. (Time expired)


Senator JOYCE —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I have never heard so much of a non-answer before in my life. Can the minister reveal whether the government is considering using his powers under section 189 of the Water Act 2007, which allows the minister to ask the Governor-General to terminate the appointment of an authority member for unsatisfactory performance?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —Senator Joyce continues to fish around with no substance to his question at all. Some people who have had a little bit more experience in this area than Senator Joyce have expressed views recently, particularly about the board and their recent appointment. Danny O’Brien, from the National Irrigators Council, said: ‘The National Irrigators Council has welcomed the appointment of Craig Knowles.’ We have Tony Windsor—

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator Joyce —Mr President, a point of order on relevance: the question was whether the minister is considering powers under section 189 of the Water Act. You should address that, Minister. See if you can get to that point.


The PRESIDENT —Minister, you have still 30 seconds remaining. I am listening to your answer. Continue. There is no point of order.


Senator CONROY —I will quote somebody well known to this chamber, and in this chamber, who said about the Murray-Darling:

One of the great initiatives of this government has been to get the cooperation of the states. I applaud people like Craig Knowles in New South Wales for his cooperation.

Senator Abetz, help me out here. Who was it? Senator Bill Heffernan.


Senator Joyce —Mr President, I have the same point of order that I brought to your attention before. I am quite specific. Is the minister considering using powers under section 189 of the Water Act? He either is or is not. Why does he not address the question? He has only five seconds left, so could he come to the answer?


The PRESIDENT —You have noted that, Senator Conroy. You have five seconds remaining to answer the question.


Senator CONROY —If there is any further information on the specific reference you make, I will see if the minister has more to add. (Time expired)