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Awkward precedent

Wednesday, 3rd October, 2018

By Craig Brealey

The extraordinary payment of $78 million by the Commonwealth to a cotton corporation at Menindee may come back to haunt those plotting the destruction of the lakes and the Darling River.

That is because the decision set a precedent that could allow everyone on the river to claim compensation, according to a former employee of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Maryanne Slattery, who resigned as the MDBA’s Director of Environmental Water Policy in 2016, has written a comprehensive report for the independent Australian Institute which explains how the controversial payment came about and how it appears to have breached Commonwealth procurement rules.

Ms Slattery’s report was published on Monday and next week she will be in Broken Hill for a public meeting at the Musicians’ Club.

In June last year, the Webster agribusiness received $38 million for 21,900 megalitres of water and $40 million in compensation for closing its Tandou cotton farm.

But paying compensation is contrary to government policy, which is to acquire water through voluntary buybacks only.

“As far as we are aware, this is the first and only compensation payment made under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,” Ms Slattery said.

The $78 million for Webster, authorised by former Federal Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce, at the recommendation of the NSW Government, has been referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, and the Australian National Audit Office.

Ms Slattery told the BDT yesterday that the Commonwealth might just baulk at the cost of compensating everyone who had lost and who stood to lose as a result of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

This would include graziers, the Barkandji people and business owners in the towns.

“There are probably two chances of them not totally destroying the river and the lakes,” she said.

“One is if they decide that Menindee is needed to meet the demands of the Sunraysia, and the other is if it’s too expensive.”

Ms Slattery, who quit the MDBA after she said she was ordered to shut down an investigation into water being stolen in northern NSW, said the evidence of illegal behaviour was mounting.

“There’s a long list of stuff that they are doing unlawfully, and the Royal Commissioner has clearly stated that aspects of the Murray-Darling Plan and  amendments to it are unlawful.

“We have also written about aspects that are unlawful but it just doesn’t seem to matter. All we can do is to try and raise the public’s awareness.”

Ms Slattery said the ABC’s Four Corners expose of water theft last year had certainly helped air secrets that were known to government employees like herself.

“It’s a hell of a lot better situation now than before Four Corners and the subsequent media attention,” she said.

“But really it should have come as no surprise to anyone working in the Commonwealth or NSW governments.”

The latest revelations showed the injustice inherent in deals between big business and government, said Ms Slattery. 

“Webster said how much it wanted and the Commonwealth found a way to justify it,” she said.

If that was how it wanted the system to work, then it should be prepared to grant to the same favour to those who had really suffered from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan,” Ms Slattery said. 

“We argue it should be applicable to every single business owner, every property owner. 

“Menindee got nothing and has no bargaining power.

“It is pretty horrendous to treat people like this.”

Ms Slattery will address the public meeting at the Musos’ Club on Friday, October 12 at 6pm. The following day she will hold a meeting at Menindee. A meeting will also be held in Mildura.

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