Malcolm Turnbull has promised key crossbencher Nick Xenophon closer monitoring of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, to remove a roadblock to the Nick Xenophon Team supporting the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation.
Turnbull will make the plan a standing item at every Council of Australian Governments meeting “so that first ministers are regularly monitoring and comparing progress of the plan”.
The government will also have a special twice-yearly estimates process, extra to the usual hearings, to enable “Senate scrutiny of all the relevant agencies to review the progress of the plan”.
Turnbull set out the monitoring regime in a letter to South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.
Although the promises do not provide the additional environmental water that Xenophon’s home state of South Australia wants, he said he was reassured and welcomed that the issue was being elevated to the level of first ministers.
Xenophon had said he would not vote on the ABCC legislation until the water issue was settled.
South Australia reacted angrily when Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who has carriage of the policy area, this month told the state that it would not get the extra environmental flow it expected because of pressures on towns upstream in Victoria and New South Wales.
Given the need to get Xenophon on board for the ABCC legislation, Liberals were furious that Joyce had raised the issue at this time, seeing his action as directed at appealing to his own constituency. Turnbull took over the issue and has spent days in intense talks with Xenophon and Weatherill, as well as contacting the other premiers in the basin plan.
In an attempt to thwart the passage of the ABCC legislation, a strong union campaign has been directed at Xenophon in SA, with robocalls claiming he is soft on the water issue.
Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, said SA needed water but instead had got more talk. She said Xenophon was “giving himself an excuse to vote for the government’s legislation”.
Announcing the water deal, Xenophon – who has also been negotiating on amendments to the legislation – said its chances of passage were better than 50-50.
Earlier this week the government also “cross-traded” with Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm on items outside the legislation. Notably, it agreed the ABC and SBS would hold open community forums in conjunction with at least half their board meetings, with some held in regional areas.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra