THE new Coalition government’s ministry has glaring portfolio gaps, with water, science and energy and resources left uncovered, says interim Opposition Leader Chris Bowen.
However, Mr Abbott played down concerns his new Cabinet failed to include a dedicated water portfolio, which was held by Tony Burke under the ALP, with Barnaby Joyce in Opposition shadowing on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan - a divisive issue during the last term of government.
Ahead of Monday's Cabinet announcement it was suggested Mr Joyce would have an expanded Agriculture portfolio containing Water to focus on productive water use.
But Mr Abbott said South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham - appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister Greg Hunt - would have responsibility for water.
He said Senator Birmingham had been “a very effective” Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Water and would continue doing that job in government.
In a statement acknowledging his appointment, Senator Birmingham said implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in a way that delivers for the environment, while preserving the status of the Murray-Darling as Australia’s major food bowl, was an important objective of the new government.
He said harnessing other water resources around Australia, whether in less developed regions or through better use of urban water, should also be a priority to increase productivity in an environmentally sustainable way.
“As the driest continent in the world Australia must take special care of our precious water resources, ensuring that every drop is used as efficiently as possible,” he said.
“Australia also boasts some world recognised rivers, lakes and wetlands, which must be preserved as habitat for many native and migratory species.
Senator Birmingham plans to meet with stakeholders in coming weeks "to ensure their views are heard" in the implementation of the Basin Plan and other water resource management policies.
“I also look forward to working with Greg Hunt to ensure that other important environmental reforms are successfully implemented, including the creation of a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals, the removal of Labor’s carbon tax and the delivery of policies to meet Australia’s emissions reduction target.”
National Irrigators Council CEO Tom Chesson said he was disappointed water was only delegated to a Parliamentary Secretary’s responsibility, but said he was confident Senator Birmingham had the talent and capacity for the job, given his experience working on the Basin Plan.
He said the Basin Plan was now at the critical implementation stage where “fine rhetoric” would transpire into action, to ensure $12 billion of taxpayers’ money isn’t wasted.
Mr Bowen said while Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott had created a broad new Industry ministry for Ian Macfarlane, resource sector stakeholders would be disappointed there was no specific voice for them in the new Cabinet.
Mr Bowen was also critical of Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop being the only woman appointed to Mr Abbott’s new front bench.
He said government ministers should be appointed on merit but called the lack of female presence in the first Abbott ministry a “sad indictment” on the Coalition’s capacity to progress female equality.
In contrast, he said there were six women on the outgoing government’s front bench.
Mr Abbott said he was disappointed more women weren’t in his new Cabinet. Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella would have been included, he said, but wasn’t clearly ahead in the vote count in her Indi electorate, when the Cabinet was chosen.
“I am disappointed that there are not at least two women in the Cabinet,” he said.
“Nevertheless, there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the Ministry.
“So I think you can expect to see, as time goes by, more women in both the Cabinet and the Ministry.”
Mr Abbott pointed to his front bench's cumulative experience, with 15 members having previous ministerial experience and the four members without ministerial experience having made “significant contributions” to the shadow ministry.
He also said the simplification of ministerial and departmental titles reflected his determination to run a “back-to-basics” government.