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Labor urged to call a Royal Commission

Friday, 26th April, 2019

Illustration by Bruce Tindale Illustration by Bruce Tindale

By Craig Brealey

Labor has promised to hold an inquiry into the federal government’s paying $79 million for water in Queensland but it must take in the equally controversial buyback at Tandou, according to a federal senator and investigators.

Indeed, Labor should go further and call a royal commission into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, said Senator Rex Patrick and The Australia Institute.

Shadow Water Minister Tony Burke on Wednesday announced that if Labor won the election it would call a commission of inquiry into what has been dubbed “Watergate”.

Mr Burke said the inquiry would have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence about how the government came to pay $78.9 million to Eastern Australia Agriculture for water on two of its properties in south-eastern Queensland.

The water it bought in 2017 was not from the river or dams but from floodplains, so its volume cannot be measured, and the profits from the sale ended up in an overseas tax haven.

The federal water minister at the time was Barnaby Joyce. That same year Mr Joyce approved the payment of $78 million to the company Webster Ltd for its Tandou cotton farm on Lake Cawndilla at Menindee.

That comprised $38 million for the water and $40 million compensation to Webster for “loss of future earnings”. 

The independent Australia Institute in Canberra has investigated several such buybacks of water from large companies in recent years, including the one at Tandou.

Rod Campbell, the institute’s research director, said that last year Mr Burke referred to the Auditor-General purchases made at Menindee and on the Warrego and Murrumbidgee rivers.

Mr Burke’s referrals followed investigations by The Australia Institute.

“He is already on record wanting to have them reviewed so I would hope that Labor would expand their inquiry to all four of the recent water purchases,” Mr Campbell told the BDT.

“There are many questions about the Menindee deal and the unprecedented $40 million paid to Webster.

“The questions about whether Eastern Australia Agriculture complied with the requirement to decommission their infrastructure after receiving the money also apply to the Tandou purchases.

“What is needed is a politically-neutral Royal Commission that can decide for itself what needs to be investigated and look at the wider issue of decisions made in the Murray-Darling Basin that have led to the parlous state it is in.”

The SA Royal Commission had “opened a can of worms”, Mr Campbell said, but was denied the ability to examine the management of the system more thoroughly because the state and federal governments refused to cooperate.

“It will definitely take more than a commission of inquiry to really start to understand and give the public some confidence that the Murray-Darling Basin is being managed in a transparent and consistent way,” he said.

Senator Patrick, of the Centre Alliance Party, described the Coalition government and Labor as being weak on the governance and execution of the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“Labor’s announcement of a limited inquiry into the ‘Watergate’ buybacks controversy misses the point,” said Sen. Patrick. 

“We have a river system in crisis with the fish kills at Menindee and the lack of drinking water at Walgett and Bourke. 

“We have had theft and rorting, we’ve got taxpayer-funded supply and efficiency projects that the Productivity Commissioner says are highly risky, we’ve got the SA Royal Commissioner finding there is political interference and maladministration and now the Watergate controversy involving a company domiciled in the Cayman Islands.”

Only a Federal Royal Commission with broad terms of reference would have the jurisdiction and scope to look at all of the issues, Sen. Patrick said.

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