Water wars a can of worms for Coalition and Labor

Water wars could be a can of worms for Coalition and Labor


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Water Resources Minister David Littleproud addresses a drought forum in Tamworth, NSW, this week. With former Water Minister Barnaby Joyce in the background. Photo AAP / Steve Gonsalves.

Water Resources Minister David Littleproud addresses a drought forum in Tamworth, NSW, this week. With former Water Minister Barnaby Joyce in the background. Photo AAP / Steve Gonsalves.

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Labor lashes government over $80m water buyback as Littleproud launches inquiry into Commonwealth water deals dating back to Labor's time in office.

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The Coalition has hit back at accusations from Labor it used taxpayers' money to pay over the odds to buy $80 million of water entitlements from irrigation corporation Eastern Australian Agriculture.

Federal Water Minister David Littleproud responded with a move that may open a can of worms for both sides of politics and instructed the auditor general to review all Commonwealth water buybacks, dating back to 2008 and the former Labor government.

The water buybacks in question came in 2017 from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australian Agriculture, when then Water Minister Barnaby Joyce oversaw recovery of 28 gigalitres of floodplain entitlements under the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

In full campaign mode Labor leader Bill Shorten leads the calls for more scrutiny into the deal, and jumping on media reports that the Eastern Ag deal, because it's water was harvested from overland flows, is of questionable value and can only be deployed on the properties it was formerly attached.

Mr Shorten said the Water Resources Department must release a complete, unredacted version of all documents on for the Eastern Ag deal by today or he would call for an independent review.

"Not with a big texta marking out all the interesting details but the fair dinkum paperwork, without the redactions, without the secret squirrel business which this government loves," Mr Shorten said.

Reports have also linked current Energy Minister Angus Taylor to Eastern Australia. Mr Taylor co-founded Eastern Australia Ag but said he severed his links before entering parliament in 2013 and that he had no stake in the 2017 buyback.

Eastern Ag is owned by a trust fund housed in the Cayman Islands, an international tax haven.

However, Mr Joyce and Mr Littleproud contend there was no impropriety in the Eastern Ag deal and have accused Labor of hypocrisy.

In 2009 Labor's Water Minister Penny Wong oversaw a Commonwealth buyback of a 24GL suite of Murray Darling Basin water entitlement owned by Twynham Pastoral - which was headed by Argentina-based John Kahlbetzer.

In 2010 the Australian Financial Review claimed Labor had paid a $40 million premium for Twynham's water.

Labor has defended the Twynham deal in comparison to the Eastern Ag buyback and argued it entered a competitive tender. At the time of the buyback Ms Wong said the deal represented value for money.

Opposition water spokesman Tony Burke has been more circumspect in his statements than Mr Shorten, but he has accused Mr Joyce on bungling the buyback.

"On the face of it, it looks like, for floodwater that only exists in very rare circumstances, that effectively, (the government) paid very top dollar for it. You don't pay Versace prices for water that you get from The Reject Shop, and that looks like what Barnaby Joyce has done," Mr Burke said.

In a heated interview on ABC radio Mr Joyce said as Minister he had followed the letter of the law, had acted in good faith on advice on from the Water Department and the Queensland Labor government, which administers water entitlements in its jurisdiction.

"I am at arms-length. I do not negotiate the price. I do not negotiate the vender. I am responsible for the overarching policy. The Greens wanted more water, so we bought the water," Mr Joyce said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Mr Joyce had acted in accordance with the legislation and that he was confident an inquiry would find no impropriety.

Some in communities spread across the Basin also want a Royal Commission to investigate issues ranging from alleged water theft, favourable treatment for corporations and water market rules that make family farm operations uneconomic.

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