You’re not alone if you threw your phone in the bottom of your sock drawer over the Easter long weekend, and traded in keeping track of any real news for scoffing down chocolate and over-analysing the latest episode of Game Of Thrones. (Yes, I had an eventful Easter, why do you ask?).
But while we all yelled at the screen about the Night King and how he’ll probably slaughter everyone we love next week, some actually serious news broke about a water buyback scandal.
When I rejoined the real world on Tuesday morning, #watergate was trending and this scandal was shaping up to be a really big deal. If you’re as confused as I was, here’s what we know.
Water buybacks are a standard part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and involves the Government buying back water from irrigators to then spread around and try to make sure that everyone in the region who need water for their crops has some. Buybacks have been happening since before the Murray Darling Basin Plan was signed off on in 2012.
Two major buyback deals, totalling $159 million, have raised some concerns. Both transactions took place back in 2017, both were signed off on by Barnaby Joyce (back when he was the Water Minister, but we’ll get to him in a moment), and neither purchase went through a public tender process – meaning we don’t get to know the details of the negotiations. A public tender is open to all qualified bidders so a final decision can be made of the basis of best price and best quality.
The first purchase was for $80 million, and was bought from a property called Tandou, near Menindee (remember the Menindee fish kills?). Tandou was owned by a food and agribusiness company called Webster Ltd, who was in turn under the control of prominent businessman, loud opinion-haver, and Liberal Party donor, Chris Corrigan. Documents show that the NSW Office Of Water played a major role in pushing for the deal to happen.
At the time, Webster Ltd owned a number of cotton properties upstream, and was named in a 2017 episode of Four Corners as a company that had been taking more than its fair share of water in the area. They obviously denied the claims.
The second transaction and the one mostly making headlines, was a purchase the Government made from a company called Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA), for $79 million. Eastern Australia Agriculture is a subsidiary of Eastern Australia Irrigation (EAI), which is based in the Cayman Islands. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the Cayman Islands is a well known tax haven in the Caribbean, so it’s not a great look.
Here’s where current Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, gets dragged into it. Taylor was director and secretary of Eastern Australia Irrigation from mid-2008 to late-2009, and has “co-founder and director, Eastern Australia Irrigation from 2007” listed on his parliamentary profile. While he claims he severed all connections to the company before he was elected to parliament in the 2013 election, it’s an undeniably strong connection.
Oh, and speaking of the 2013 election, Eastern Australia Agriculture donated $55,000 to the Liberal Party just prior to it.
The kicker in all of this is that despite spending a record amount, the water couldn’t actually be used. The $79 million was spent on overflow water – water left behind after a flood – and legally that water can’t be used outside of the property it was bought on, so it had to stay exactly where it was.
While Angus Taylor has calmly denied that he had any involvement in, or even knowledge of the buyback until after it occurred, Barnaby Joyce has decided to take the half-hour-long-rambling-national-radio-interview route. You can listen to the interview with Patricia Karvelas here, or you can trust my extensive and nuanced summary of it:
Where we stand now is that the Coalition is standing by the buybacks, and the Greens and Centre Alliance are calling for a royal commission, which Labor are saying they might or might not go ahead with. It’s all a huge schmozzle, but will this be something that stays on voters minds until May 18th? Well, that’s the $159 million dollar question.