“We get a lot of people who hide behind the curtain of Twitter and Facebook and get on a keyboard and say things that aren’t right. Quite hurtful. Have the courage to come forward and put your name to it.”
Macdonald: “Can I ask you about the issue rather than the personal component which I’m not entirely clear on. Should people in politics have to declare an interest in this sort of thing?
Littleproud: “Totally. Totally.”
Macdonald: “Why don’t they?”
Littleproud: “What he’s trying to raise from behind Twitter is that someone has tried to say that my ex-wife’s second cousin once removed, who is now facing charges over the misuse of a Queensland state government program, somehow has a link to me. It was created before I was in parliament. And before I was water minister.
“So you want to dance, let’s put it out on the table. Let’s go hand in hand to [independent Northern Basin Commissioner] Mick Keelty. Let’s be mature. I want to lead the nation. I want to make sure we get this right. If we want to get into this petty grubby situation, good luck to you.”
It was an awkward moment on an awkward night for a minister in the firing line.
He was, according to Labor’s Fitzgibbon and Australia Institute water researcher Maryanne Slattery, guilty of untruths. He faced angry denunciations and appeals for help from farmers like Badger Bates, who made a stark plea via video from the dry-as-dust banks of the Barka, as the Darling is known to Indigenous Australians.
“When are you going to put water and give us [a] guarantee that the Barka will flow again?”
Littleproud: “The first thing is, it has to rain. We have a serious supply issue. I’m sorry. I can’t make it rain. And the only thing that will get the water running into those rivers is stuff from the sky. That is a serious, serious issue that we’ve got. Until we fix the supply, there are going to be constraints on that. I’m sorry. I can’t lie to you.”
Toughest of all for the minister, he was seated next to one of the most powerful and eloquent voices from rural Australia, Kate McBride, the 21-year-old whose viral video of her father nursing dying cod helped turn Australia’s water crisis into a global issue.
She took no prisoners, having a go at Littleproud and Fitzgibbon for political squabbling while farmers livelihoods are dying.
“I think we can see it right here,” she said.
“The question was what’s the future for the kids and that’s exactly my question as well. As a young farmer, I’m 21 years old, where is my future in all this?”
Later, as Littleproud lamented the effect of water buybacks and vowed they would never be government policy again, Macdonald observed: “If I may say minister, you look quite emotional.”
Littleproud: “These are people I know personally.”
Macdonald: “Are they telling you you’re making mistakes?”
Macdonald: “We’re hearing it all over the place. It’s strange you’re not hearing it.”
Littleproud: “Those people want government out of their lives … they see for the first time they can have government out of their lives and they can get on and do what they do best which is grow food and fibre.”
Which was McBride’s prompt to make her most heartfelt intervention of the night.
“How can you say to those people and myself included that live along there, ‘We’re not going to put any more water back in the river from buybacks. You guys have to sit at the end of the river and die’. That’s what you’re telling us right now.”