A large water buyback at apparently inflated prices by the Turnbull government when Barnaby Joyce was agriculture minister raises ‘‘serious questions’’, says Nick Xenophon Team senator Rex Patrick. He says he will refer it to the South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin.
Details of the $17 million purchase in March 2017 from a property owned by Geoff Dunston at $1600 a megalitre in the Warrego River in southern Queensland were obtained by Senator Patrick in a Senate order for documents.
But unlike another big buyback also signed last March – which delivered a $37 million windfall for ASX-listed Webster Ltd headed by Chris Corrigan for its Tandou property water rights – the government this time redacted the independent valuer’s recommendation.
‘‘Barnaby Joyce has some serious questions to answer,’’ Senator Patrick told Fairfax Media. ‘‘He has authorised a water buyback at what appears to be more than twice the market price.’’
Concerns about the Warrego buyback also extend to how it avoided water cutbacks in the Borders Rivers, a more prosperous region spanning southern Queensland and northern NSW dominated by major irrigators.
Maryanne Slattery, a senior analyst with the Australia Institute who examined the documents, said Mr Joyce’s support for the purchase of 10.611 billion litres of annual water rights from Mr Dunston’s property contrasted starkly with his opposition to a buyback in the Warrego River by the Rudd government in 2008.
The environmental water would probably ‘‘merrily’’ go down the Warrego and ‘‘quickly dissipate’’ before reaching the Barwon-Darling and the rest of the river system, Mr Joyce told Parliament at the time. ‘‘It is a sad day indeed when this sort of process is peddled out there.’’
You will now receive updates fromBreaking News Alert
Breaking News Alert
Get the latest news and updates emailed straight to your inbox.
Fairfax Media sought comment from Mr Joyce and his successor as Water Minister, David Littleproud.
‘‘The government has been fully transparent with water purchases,’’ a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said.
Mr Dunston said in a letter to the department in January 2017 that water valuations were ‘‘difficult given the lack of a trading market or historical water sales’’. The price of a separate sale of his property’s water as part of the Healthy Headwaters Program was redacted.
Mr Dunston declined to comment on the prices – including what he paid for the original licence in 1999 – saying it was ‘‘private business’’.
Ed Fessey, who served on the North Basin Advisory Committee for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, said the water sold by Mr Dunston existed only in one-off flood events, and is known locally as ‘‘goanna water’’.
‘‘The only time you get it is when goannas are sticking their heads out of the trees [because of flooding],’’ Mr Fessey said.
Even with its intermittent flows, the Dunston deal would potentially deliver a hammer blow to the region, said Lindsay Godfrey, mayor of Paroo Shire and part of Mr Littleproud’s electorate.
‘‘I was quite shocked when it was announced,’’ Cr Godfrey said. ‘‘Nobody thought the Warrego was on the agenda for water buybacks.’’
He was particularly irked by the government’s reluctance to reveal how much water had been bought, a figure gleaned only from tender documents, he said.
The sale had the potential to lop $6 million from the shire’s annual output of about $95 million, Cr Godfrey said, adding he had sought compensation.
Ms Slattery, who formerly worked for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, said the Warrego purchase had ‘‘serious implications’’ for recent amendments to the basin plan that failed to pass the Senate thanks to Labor, Greens and Xenophon senators.
In a report by the Australia Institute, Ms Slattery said the proposed amendments allowed the authority and the states to change diversion limits in a valley ‘‘without any consideration of the science’’.
‘‘This [buyback] deal matters because it shows how the people who are in charge of our greatest river system feel free to make decisions regardless of the rules and regardless of the science,’’ Ms Slattery said.
‘‘It undermines confidence in the politicians and public servants who claim to act in the best interests of the public and the basin, and then contradict their own stated positions and do deals without public scrutiny.’’
An authority spokeswoman said it ‘‘absolutely rejects any accusation that it has misled Parliament or the public’’.
Senator Patrick said: ‘‘The public’s confidence in the authority waned significantly after the water theft events of last year, but now it’s reached the point where there needs to be a purge of senior management personnel such that confidence can be restored.’’