The Liberals have urged the Nationals to get into line after the junior Coalition partner attempted to blow up the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
Barnaby Joyce’s return as deputy prime minister has emboldened the junior Coalition partner, which this week threw parliament into chaos by attempting to destroy the government’s policy in both houses.
An attempt to bring amendments to the House of Representatives was neutered by the Liberal Party, preventing Mr Joyce from being put in a tricky predicament: vote against his party or resign from cabinet.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said he “fully respected” the rights of individual MPs to air their concerns but urged the Nationals to end their damaging campaign.
“It does need to stop,” he told ABC Radio.
Mr Birmingham confirmed an earlier failed attempt in the Senate, in which former cabinet ministers Bridget McKenzie and Matt Cavanan voted for the amendments, had blindsided the Liberals.
“(We were given) not a lot of warning; I found about it on the morning that it was due to happen. Of course that’s disappointing, but the government’s policy position remains very clear,” he told ABC Radio.
“I was certainly deeply disappointed by some (Nationals’ comments), but I do respect the rights of individual members and senators to passionately argue the concerns of their constituents. That’s what they’re sent to Canberra to do.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has suggested the Nationals keeping the water portfolio, currently held by Keith Pitt, was no longer workable given the outbreak of dissent.
Mr Albanese said Mr Joyce’s return and its subsequent impact on the parliament was evidence of a “chaotic government”.
“We’ve had a coup with a deputy prime minister replaced with a failed former deputy prime minister, where we had members of the government moving motions in the Senate and in the House of Representatives to overturn government policy, where we had both wings of the National Party united by the opposition to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,” he told reporters on Friday.
It comes after extraordinary scenes in the House of Representatives on Thursday when the Liberal and leader of the House Peter Dutton effectively gagged Nationals whip Damian Drum during an attempt to move the amendments.
Labor backed the Nationals in their attempts to be heard, though Mr Drum abandoned the move once the opposition’s support was made clear.
Despite laying bare the schism in the Coalition, Mr Drum insisted he was willing to work with the Liberals to achieve an acceptable outcome.
“The only chance that I have of bringing about water policy change within this parliament means I have to work with the Liberal Party. At the moment there is a gulf there between our beliefs,” he said.
Talking points from Mr Drum, which were accidentally tabled, claimed the “science no longer supports South Australia needing fresh water”.
Mr Birmingham said the claim was “of course not true”, as “fresh water is essential for any civilisation”.
“It’s certainly essential for any city, any state, any population centre,” he said.
“But I assume the points were probably trying to say that additional water flows, or additional water recovery, were not essential.”