New MDBA chief has the experience to bridge troubled waters

By Stephen Easton

Monday November 30, 2015

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s new chief executive may have spent the last nine years as a senior leader in Agriculture, but he also brings high level experience in Environment and Prime Minister and Cabinet to the role.

Phillip Glyde’s appointment was confirmed on Friday, two weeks after the news leaked out of cabinet, and two months after Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce snared most of water policy from Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Before spending the past nine years as a deputy secretary at the recently renamed Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Glyde spent over six years as a first assistant secretary in charge of the Environmental Quality Division of the environment department, as it went through several machinery-of-government changes.

Throughout most of the 1990s, he worked as an assistant secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in a forest management team. He has also worked at the Resource Assessment Commission and as head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

Phillip Glyde
Phillip Glyde

After the abrupt sacking of Paul Grimes early this year, Glyde acted as Agriculture secretary as he had previously, but the permanent role went to his colleague Daryl Quinlivan.

The chair of the board he will work with, former MP and Speaker Neil Andrew, said Glyde’s most recent experience “complements the MDBA’s recent move to the agriculture portfolio” and that his 30 years of experience in natural resource management would be “pivotal” the agency’s ongoing work.

“As we approach major milestones in the Basin Plan next year, with decisions including the northern basin review and the sustainable diversion limit adjustment process, the strength of Mr Glyde’s leadership will continue to reassure Basin communities of the MDBA’s commitment to open communication, transparency and scientific rigour,” said Andrew.

Joyce said Glyde’s “extensive experience as a senior public servant in natural resource management and economics” and understanding of “complex state and Commonwealth issues” made him a good fit to lead the MDBA.

“He has a proven track record in financial management and public sector governance as well as experience leading professional teams and setting strategic vision,” the minister said.

He starts the new job early in 2016.

The choice of Glyde to run the MDBA was met with cautious optimism from the National Irrigators’ Council, which was also pleased to see Joyce take over most responsibilities for the Water Act 2007 after Malcolm Turnbull won the prime ministership.

The peak body’s chief Tom Chesson said Glyde would need to “change the culture” of the Authority if he wanted to improve its relationship with irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin.

That shift — which Turnbull agreed to when he renewed the coalition agreement between the Liberal and National parties — understandably raised concerns from an environmental standpoint, while the Irrigators’ Council felt it didn’t go far enough in leaving the office of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder — which controls water on behalf of the environment but also sells it to irrigators — within Hunt’s purview.

Water policy researcher James Horne described the CEWH, a statutory appointment, as “core business to the Environment Department, and one that relies on a significant amount of environmental science expertise”.

Meanwhile Chesson, supported by several coalition MPs and senators, has argued the new administrative arrangements “add a further layer of complexity, duplication and red tape to the management of water resources in the Murray Darling Basin at the federal level” and thrown Turnbull’s words as former water minister back at him.

Back in 2007 when the Water Act was passed in the last days of the Howard government, Turnbull said “widely distributed responsibilities for the management of the Basin [had] led to inefficiency, blame-shifting and under-resourcing by state and territory governments”.

The irrigators’ group says that is still the state of play and complains that when state and territory agencies are included, there are an excessive number of public servants working on water issues. Most states and territories only have one department in the area, with New South Wales the exception, but the list of all government agencies involved in water management is indeed long, and then there is management of water catchment areas.

Now, Chesson is lobbying for the MDBA to back away from its role as “the day-to-day face of the Plan” and resources to be redirected to the CEWH and state-based water agencies.

The task for Glyde as he rolls out the Murray-Darling Basin Plan developed under his predecessor will be to balance long-term sustainability with the needs of irrigators and the communities around them that enjoy the benefits of agricultural water use, while avoiding the perception of the MDBA being captured by the farming lobby.

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