Basin Plan a 'political football' in watergate election stoush

Basin Plan a 'political football' in watergate election stoush

Labor Environment spokesman Tony Burke and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on the campaign trail. Photo AAP / Lukas Coch.

Labor Environment spokesman Tony Burke and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on the campaign trail. Photo AAP / Lukas Coch.


Advocates from across political divide say controversial inquires into buyback deals may stymie more important environmental reforms.


Two groups often cast as representing opposite sides in the Murray Darling Basin Plan are warning that the political spat over water buybacks poses a risk to the the $13 billion water reform.

The National Irrigators Council and the Australian Conservation Foundation both say that while allegations raised over a contentious 2017 Commonwealth water buyback warrant scrutiny, the political furore dominating the election campaign risks long term benefits of the Basin Plan.

The issue, which has been dubbed watergate, centres on media reports that alleged former Water Minister Barnaby Joyce paid over the odds using taxpayers' money to buy $80 million of water entitlements from irrigation corporation Eastern Australian Agriculture.

Click here to read more about the Eastern Ag buyback deal.

Opposition environment spokesman Tony Burke said today that a Labor government would open a parliamentary inquiry into the deal.

Mr Burke, who has stopped short of calling for a Royal Commission, said today that he didn't want to politicise the issue but added that any future Labor inquiry would focus solely on Mr Joyce's deal and wouldn't include the former Labor government's decisions.

"If we wanted to seriously politicise the Murray Darling Basin we'd go into a whole period of Barnaby Joyce and possible a period of other ministers... we don't want to do that. We want to restore the system to health," he said.

Federal Water Minister David Littleproud has asked the auditor general to review all Commonwealth water buybacks, dating back to 2008 and the former Labor government - which faces questions over overspending on a $300m water buyback in 2009.

Former Liberal Leader and Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy John Hewson said it was in both parties interest call an inquiry, that has real teeth, into all water deals.

"The best way to deal with this issue is to stop arguing and refer it to a limited judicial inquiry, which has powers to demand the documents and cross examine the key people," Mr Hewson said.

The potential for this to change votes in green-tinged urban electorates hinges on more information coming out to stoke the controversy, Mr Hewson said.

"These are the classic circumstances where something new might leak. When there's pressure like this on an issue, documents tend to emerge and if the pressure is sustained it could impact in environmentally sensitive areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane."

National Irrigators Council chief executive Steve Whan said the "use of the Basin Plan as a political football worries me".

"It's entirely reasonable for the attorney general to look at how government money is being spent," Mr Whan said.

"But some people are using this issue to undermine the entire Basin Plan, and it has some really difficult things to get done. There is a danger in this campaign on losing bipartisan support for the reform."

Mr Whan said some people were "trying to tarnish irrigation" over the buybacks - which he rejected, arguing the Commonwealth negotiated with individual companies.

"The industry had nothing to do with that sale, and in fact we don't advocate for buybacks," he said.

Australian Conservation Foundation campaign director Dr Paul Sinclair said he had issues other than buyback deals on the top of his agenda.

"I'm concerned about inquiries by either party that are quick fixes around a political circus.

The issue facing the Basin Plan go beyond a single deal," Mr Sinclair said.

"Captured in the one deal is the much bigger story of what is wrong with Basin Plan implementation."

The ACF is concerned about the efficacy of the infrastructure investments and ongoing efforts to recover water to the environment under the Basin Plan.

Mr Sinclair said buyback inquiries shouldn't distract from the bigger issues around longer term reforms, including establishing a federal independent commission against corruption, a national environment protection agency, and implementing the recommendations of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Basin Plan.

He also found common ground with the National Farmers Federation, and called for the Productivity Commission's proposed reforms to the Murray Darling Basin Authority to be implemented.

The Commissions report into the federal agency found that the MDBA was created with conflicting roles and it should be split into two independent bodies - a Corporation and a Regulator.

"These conflicts cannot be successfully managed through internal controls. In its current form, the MDBA cannot be a trusted adviser to Basin Governments and a credible regulator," the report said.

Basically - the MDBA marks its own homework.

The Corporation would advise the states in design of crucial water recovery infrastructure, river operations and policy, and the Regulator would get out on the ground and check the projects and policies are working on the ground.

NFF president Fiona Simson supported calls for an inquiry into past buyback deals, but said it should not come at the expense of the challenging reforms recommended by the Productivity Commission.

"Sure, let's have an inquiry, but the Productivity Commission's report has slipped by unnoticed," Ms Simson said.

"Some of the recommendations are very difficult but we believe they could add confidence and transparency to the way the Water Department and MDBA operate.

"It could make it more difficult to reform the MDBA if there are ongoing inquiries into the buyback deals."


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