Water wars – questions are being raised whether due process was followed in an $80-million water licence sale

At a time where water is a scarce commodity for farmers across the country, it’s also become a reason for the rich to get richer.

There’s a trail of money moving across the globe, all entirely legal, from the sale of valuable water licenses. And the questions raised lead us to two senior government figures, being one current and one former government minister.

A water buyback is where the government offers to purchase water entitlements that irrigators use for farming purposes from willing sellers.

Water levels in the Murray Darling Basin, one of our country’s main water source, aren’t enough to sustain irrigation, the environment and our growing usage. So, the government created a scheme to cap how much is taken out and allow for it to be traded.

The government buys back water from farms. But unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much transparency when it comes to negotiated buybacks. So some questions have been raised in the Senate, such as who got the buybacks, why did they get them, and how much was paid?

One company in question owned two properties in Queensland – Kia Ora and Clyde – and in 2017, sold water licenses back to the government at an unusually high price of around $80 million dollars.

Hamish Macdonald sat down with Professor of Economics Quentin Grafton to discuss the situation.

“This is the only example of a huge amount of money being paid for water that was done without due process,” Professor Grafton says.

Documents show that the company had unsuccessfully attempted to sell water to the government until 2017.

Professor Quentin outlined some questions that should be asked:

  • To what extent was the minister connected to those decisions?
  • Why, against advice at least in one of those purchases, and against departmental advice, did the purchase go ahead anyway?

Some politicians say there simply isn’t enough water to go around – so how is it that some powerful people are actually making hundreds of millions of dollars from it?

To find out more about this investigation, tune into The Project tonight at 6:30

Statement from an Energy Minister spokesperson:

Minister Taylor has never had a direct or indirect financial interest in EAA or any associated company.

Minister Taylor concluded all association with EAA and related companies prior to entering the Parliament.

Minister Taylor had no knowledge of the Federal Government’s water buyback from EAA until after it occurred. He received no benefit from this transaction.

We also received this response from Barnaby Joyce’s office:

As of today (21/04/19) a spokesperson for Mr Joyce has provided the following comment:

“In regard to the report on The Project by Hamish Macdonald on Thursday 18 April, 2019 the details conveyed, both in inference and fact, were reckless and may be deemed vexatious as the correct information could easily have been obtained by contacting the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

My Joyce had no role in determining either the price or the vendor, nor the classification of any purchase of a water entitlement in this area.  They were done at arms length by the Murray-Darling  Basin Authority in conjunction with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.

By examination of precedents of the purchase of water by the previous Labor Minister, Penny Wong, using The Project’s approach to the current report would infer that former Minister Wong was also possibly culpable of some nefarious purpose in the acquisition of Twynam Pastoral Company’s parcel of water. This also would be totally incorrect and after numerous Senate inquiries, no such assertion as to the legality of Penny Wong’s role has ever been made. This information is also easily obtainable from the Department and the Hansard record.

The department has confirmed that Mr Joyce had no contact with Mr Taylor and this also could have been discovered if Mr Macdonald had inquired the same from the department. The purchase of EAA water was first mooted by the Queensland Government in 2015.

By reason of what may be deemed as a defamatory inference, that Mr Joyce was motivated and capable of an ulterior purpose in his role as a Minister, he is currently in discussions with solicitors about this matter.

Mr Joyce requests that The Project corrects the record at the first available opportunity on the same platform on which the initial allegations were made.”

In relation to allegations raised today (21/04/19) by Mr Joyce against former Minister Penny Wong, a spokesperson for Ms Wong has provided this statement:

“Barnaby’s statement is a desperate attempt to deflect blame from his own behaviour by conflating different water entitlements to try to make the ‘Watergate’ purchase look less extraordinary.

It’s time Barnaby started answering serious questions about his role in this purchase. Barnaby Joyce needs to explain how it could possibly have represented value for money and who received a direct or indirect benefit.”