One of the more extraordinary events on Capital Hill last week was Barnaby Joyce's attempts to claim responsibility for water policy.

In one sense it's a somewhat irrelevant debate because after decades of horse trading between the Commonwealth, the States, and other stakeholders, water policy is pretty much settled.

This is particularly true of the Murray Darling Basin, Australia's primary food-bowl.  There, governments have finally settled on a formula for guaranteeing the health of the river systems and therefore, the sustainability of the agriculture pursuits which rely on them.

But Barnaby Joyce seems determined to both claim responsibility for water policy and in doing so, send the message that under his reign, policy would change; and that any farmer who wanted more water would get it at the right price.

Two problems emerge.  First, despite Barnaby's claims to the contrary, Malcolm Turnbull has not honoured the promise he gave to Barnaby on the day he rolled Tony Abbott.  It says something about the now PM's ambition, that he was prepared to undermine water policy, when even Tony Abbott was unprepared to.

However the Ministerial Orders prepared by Turnbull’s office and signed by the Governor General make it clear that the primary water responsibilities remain with the Environment Minister, as they should.

Second, even if Malcolm Turnbull had honoured his promise, any substantial policy change would require the agreement of the Basin States and the support of both Houses of the Federal Parliament.  This would have been unlikely, no matter who is the advocate for change.

The real issue flowing from Barnaby Joyce's bizarre behavior is the way it threatens to unsettle the Murray Darling Basin consensus.  Unlike most with an interest, Barnaby Joyce doesn't seem to understand that agriculture's sustainability depends entirely on the health of the water system.

Further, if there is a legitimate case for regulatory adjustment, it's most likely to succeed in a benign political environment; one in which the stability, certainty and broad support are the order of the day.

When this political environment exists, relatively minor adjustments to the regulatory construct are possible.  This was evident when the current government proposed a change to cap buy-backs and the Labor opposition supported the initiative. 

Few acts of parliament are timeless and few issues are immune from changing circumstances.  More often than not, when Governments put forward a readable and sensible case for change, Opposition parties support it.

Securing support for small and meritorious change in sensitive areas like the Murray Darling Basin requires evidenced-based submissions and a level of trust between the relevant stakeholders.  It is the existing, hard won detente which made the most recent adjustments possible.

Currently there are various calls for further change.  Some may have merit, others may not.  But the message Barnaby Joyce is trying to send; that he'll ride to the rescue of any producer or grower who wants more water at a cheap price, threatens the prospects of securing regulatory tweaking when the facts demand it.

Sadly I suggest Barnaby Joyce is spending more time thinking about the timing of Warren Truss's retirement than he does the long term sustainability of Australia's agriculture sector for future generations.

This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday, 19 October 2015.

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