The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission delivered a searing report yesterday which found that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had committed gross maladministration and negligence in overseeing years of water theft and mass fish kills. Agriculture and Water minister David Littleproud, the man currently responsible for this gargantuan mess, claimed in response that there had been “significant improvements” since he’d taken over, before saying, as if to no one in particular, “we acted in a mature way with leadership, not with politics. You know what? The Australian public have had a gutful of politics. They want outcomes. That’s what I’m about.”

Like many Nationals, Littleproud doesn’t necessarily attract as much attention as one might expect — particularly now that he’s a minister. But the issues afflicting him are a microcosm of those afflicting his party.

The Murray-Darling Basin

Of course, the colossal mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan isn’t entirely his fault; it’s just one of the many calamities Barnaby Joyce has bequeathed to his colleagues and the country. But it is his problem, and in that regard he’s done himself no favours. The sight of tonnes upon tonnes of dead and rotting fish blanketing the surface of the Darling river system greeted us in the new year and, a few days ago, there was another. Apparently, somehow, it was even worse. In the teeth of this grotesque policy failure (over 1 million native fish have died) Littleproud’s proclamation that fish kills will continue to happen and had been occurring for “many, many years now” was minimising and tone deaf. 

Live exports

“I was absolutely shocked and gutted,” said Littleproud after sickening footage emerged last year of sheep dying from heat stress on an Emanuel Exports ship. Once again, this is a problem Littleproud can thank his predecessor as agriculture minister for. During his tenure, Joyce opposed efforts to improve animal welfare standards in live exports and degraded existing protections. The problems were such that Littleproud unloaded on his own department, which he said was unable to regulate the industry:

Ten days ago I received a report from my department, who is the independent regulator in respect to live trade, around an incident that happened in August 2017. I became concerned by that report not finding any breaches of standards by the exporter in question and subsequently asked the department to provide me with further information around their actions with respect to that incident and whether they had investigated that to a satisfactory level. I have only just received that brief back last week, but before that, I saw the chilling footage provided to me by Animals Australia … quite candidly, that vision does not marry up with the report I received, and that is quite disappointing to me …

The live export issue has also led to further spats with the Liberal Party, with Littleproud dismissing an anti-live export bill put forward by Liberals Sarah Henderson and Sussan Ley as a bit of ill-thought-out emotion: “I respect her … but I’m going to predicate my decisions on evidence, not emotion.”

Corporate spats

For a member of a conservative party, Littleproud is weirdly in favour of boycotts. After ANZ announced that it would close service in 61 regional centres, Littleproud was unequivocal: 

My advice in response to this callousness? Take your business elsewhere. The ANZ obviously doesn’t care about country people who’ve supported it for decades as ANZ’s decided to abandon bush communities and leave customers high-and-dry.

He also told customers of Coles and Aldi to go elsewhere, after Coles ceased raising money for drought-afflicted farmers and, in his words, Aldi continued to “do bugger all” for them. 

Farm labour visas

Littleproud has long been a proponent of a special agricultural visa that would allow for foreign workers to come to Australia to alleviate farm labour shortages. The visa has brought chaos to the Nationals leadership — with many in the party feeling leader Michael McCormack (remember that guy?) has been too passive on the issue — and brought Littleproud into direct conflict with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Morrison reportedly “slapped Littleproud down” during a “robust cabinet exchange” about the issue, arguing it would cause backlash from Pacific island nations, whose citizens are preferenced as seasonal workers under current arrangements. Dutton, on the other hand, thought the visa would allow more illegal immigrants into Australia, because of course he did.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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