In a rare show of unity, the South Australian Parliament will gang up on the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to try force him to split the federal agriculture and water portfolios into separate government departments.
The water portfolio was merged with the agriculture portfolio in 2015 as part of a revised Coalition agreement, at the request of the National Party.
The SA Labor Government and the Liberal Opposition have told the ABC they will both support a motion by the SA Greens to formally request Mr Turnbull separate the two portfolios.
“The water portfolio and agriculture portfolio at a commonwealth level should not be held by the same minister, the [portfolios] compete with each other,” Greens member of the Legislative Council, Tammy Franks, said.
“We need a minister to stand up for the Murray and only holds the water portfolio and not agriculture.”
The SA Greens want to capitalise on the chaos caused by the citizenship saga, which has seen the former agriculture and water minister, and Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce, step aside while he faces a by-election.
Mr Turnbull currently holds the portfolios in an acting capacity until Mr Joyce’s fate is decided on December 2.
“While Barnaby Joyce is off contesting the by-election we don’t have him in this portfolio, so it’s a great opportunity to fight for the river and for the water portfolio not to be given back to Barnaby Joyce,” Ms Franks said.
SA opposition water spokesman, David Speirs, questioned the need for the State Parliament to interfere in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet decisions, but said the Liberal Party wouldl give the motion “lukewarm support.”
“I don’t believe it is the place for a State Parliament to be telling a Prime Minister how he should construct his parliament, it’s an unusual thing to do,” Mr Speirs said.
“But we believe it’s a valuable motion and does stay quite clearly that we have concerns about the current administration of the river.”
In July the major political parties and independents in South Australia made a joint declaration, calling for an independent judicial inquiry into the Murray Darling Basin, following allegations of water theft in New South Wales and mismanagement of the basin.
However, this is the first time the State Parliament has united formally since those revelations, and Ms Franks said when her motion passes it would be a rare occurrence.
“I’m not sure if this method has been used very often, if at all, but the Murray is so important that it should see our whole parliament unite,” she said.
However, Mr Speirs denied his party’s support for the motion meant the SA Liberals was turning on their federal counterparts and the Prime Minister.
“I have no problem having robust conversations or disagreements if necessary, if that includes the minister for water federally, or the Prime Minister, then I’m more than happy for that,” Mr Speirs said.
SA water minister Ian Hunter said the State Government would also support the motion, guaranteeing its passing, and labelled it a “commonsense proposition.”
“It takes the policy position back to what it was under the Howard Government when Malcom Turnbull was the Minister for Environment and Water Resources,” Mr Hunter said.
“That separation of agriculture and water portfolio had been constant until the Nationals strong-armed the portfolio off the Liberals in 2015.”
“We understand the Prime Minister is in a tight spot and relies on a one seat majority in the Federal Parliament, and he’s essentially been blackmailed [by the Nationals] to hand over the keys to all the goodies.
“But we think he needs to take a broader view, that is respect for the whole Murray, and if he doesn’t act, then all South Australians will have the right to judge him very harshly.”
The motion will go to Parliament on Wednesday, and once it passes both houses of Parliament, it will see the president of South Australia’s Legislative Council issue the demand in a letter to the prime minister.
Ms Franks said she believes South Australian’s want to see the prime minister action the request, and rejection it will frustrate his state counterparts.
“You would have a lot of grumpy Liberal MPS who wouldn’t be impressed with the leadership of Mr Turnbull.”