A focus on hugely lucrative water buybacks has left the Nationals vulnerable to accusations they have abandoned family farmers. By Mike Seccombe.

Nationals upset farmers over water

Barnaby Joyce’s protégé and successor as minister for agriculture and water resources, David Littleproud, achieved a height of dudgeon worthy of his mentor in parliamentary question time on Wednesday.

Littleproud had been asked about another in the growing list of questionable deals relating to billions of taxpayer dollars spent by government under the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, buying back water entitlements.

NXT crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie wanted to know why the government paid well over twice the going rate to buy back a very large volume of water from a big irrigator on the Warrego River in southern Queensland. Official documents obtained by her Senate colleague Rex Patrick showed the government paid $1600 a megalitre, she said, “versus payment of around $720 a megalitre for similar licences in the same region”.

“Can the minister explain why more than the commercial rate was paid?” she asked. “Is the minister aware of any relationships, friendships or conflicts of interest between the beneficiaries of the buybacks in this catchment and the former or current minister for water and resources?”

Littleproud didn’t like the implication of the question – that there was something untoward in the payment of almost $17 million to the owners of the property Hortonvale, near Cunnamulla.

His shortish answer began calmly enough, with an admission that he knew about the price paid, because he lived in the same small community, but that the water buyback was negotiated “at arm’s length” and before he became minister.

From there, though, it was a rapid crescendo of indignation and fractured grammar. He bellowed that Sharkie was trying to “character assassinate me in some cheap attempt to score political points” while her party and Labor, “nothing more than a cold callous political machine”, were destroying the livelihoods of “those two million Australians”, up and down the Murray–Darling Basin.

“You should hang your heads in shame,” he concluded. From his new position on the back bench, Joyce voiced his support: “Well done, mate.”

At almost exactly the same moment as Littleproud sat down, a forwarded email dropped into the inbox of this reporter. It was a media release from Water NSW, announcing a “red level warning” about a bloom of toxic blue-green algae along a stretch of the lower Darling River, between the flyspeck locales of Pooncarie and Burtundy.

It advised people along a 50-kilometre stretch of the Darling not to drink the river water, not to swim in it, or use it for domestic purposes including showering and washing, even if they boiled it first, because boiling would not remove the toxins.

They were warned not to let their pets or livestock near the affected parts of the river either, or to eat mussels or crayfish caught in it.

The statement went on to warn that the bloom could spread downstream and to say it was “not possible to predict how long the algae will remain at high levels”.

Probably, though, it will be many months. Indeed, it is more likely things will get worse. And the management of the system by the federal government is a big part of that.

It is expected large stretches of the lower Darling will be dry before year’s end. That is the fear of Katharine McBride, whose family homestead, Tolarno, is located on the Darling, about 90 minutes’ drive along a rough road north of Pooncarie, and is already on amber alert for blue-green algae.

She doesn’t blame the weather, although it’s been a dry year. She blames mismanagement and rorting and corruption of process. She blames big money politics. And, mostly, she blames the Nationals. So do others in the country.

That fact, as much as Sharkie’s pointed question in the House on Wednesday, might explain Littleproud’s near-hysterical response.

The McBride family have been pastoralists for 150 years, They bought Tolarno in 1949. Over the years they have added a couple of adjoining properties to their holding. They run 20,000 sheep. Katharine’s husband, Robert, has a strong background in banking and finance and is a director of the Australian Wool Growers Association.

In short, they are the sort of rural establishment on which the Nationals used to be able to rely.

But no more. Increasingly over the past few years, McBride says, the view among pastoralists like her family and even some smaller irrigators, is that the Nationals have abandoned them for big corporate interests.

“The perception is the Nats have gone from having a wide ag [agriculture] focus to, particularly within the Murray–Darling Basin, a very strong focus on supporting large irrigation organisations,” she says.

“They have had a particularly strong allegiance with the cotton lobbyist groups. They have preferenced big irrigators upstream. And people like us have been left out to dry.”

In all the decades the McBrides have been on Tolarno, the Darling has run dry three times, she says: once in a big drought in the 1940s, then again in 2006 during the millennium drought, widely considered the worst in recorded Australian history.

The third time it happened was in late 2015. A 500-kilometre stretch of the Darling, between Menindee and Wentworth, ceased to flow.

“We didn’t get flows again until mid 2016. So we had nine months of dry riverbed,” McBride says.

But it wasn’t a time of drought. The Darling catchment had average rainfall. It was, she says, a manmade disaster, caused by overextraction of water – both illicit and government-sanctioned.

“We have two bones to pick. One is with those who have blatantly stolen water, and the other is with the Nationals, for having sold many, many farming communities down the river, so to speak,” she says.

Which brings us back to that question asked of David Littleproud on Wednesday, about the $17 million buyback of water from the Warrego River.

Back in 2008, the then Labor government of New South Wales was roundly criticised by Barnaby Joyce for having “squandered” $23.75 million of taxpayers’ money buying back water rights in the Warrego, in the hope of improving water flows in the lower Murray–Darling Basin.

Joyce pointed out, quite correctly according to the experts, that the purchase would do little or nothing to solve the chronic water shortages of the lower Murray–Darling, for the simple reason that except in big floods the Warrego doesn’t flow into the Murray–Darling. Instead, it dissipates into a series of swamps, a sort of inland delta.

Yet almost a decade later Joyce, as Nationals leader and water minister in the Turnbull government, approved the purchase of more water from a Warrego farmer, in a deal similar in many respects, except that it was done at more than twice the price per megalitre.

The lucky sellers were the Dunsdon family. Littleproud is on the record acknowledging a long friendship with Don Dunsdon, and conceding that the government had not sought to buy more water from the river, but had been approached, unsolicited, by Dunsdon.

The Saturday Paper is not suggesting Don Dunsdon or any member of his family have acted inappropriately in negotiating the buyback.

As noted in a swingeing analysis of the transaction by Maryanne Slattery and Rod Campbell of The Australia Institute, based on the government documents obtained by Rex Patrick, there are odd aspects of the deal.

“This purchase was not required to meet the water recovery target in the Warrego under the Murray–Darling Basin Plan,” they wrote. “Instead, it was intended to count towards the water recovery target in the Border Rivers.”

The government was buying back water from an underexploited river system, and “transferring” the water saving to an overexploited, completely separate river system.

Furthermore, noted Slattery and Campbell: “This swap required an amendment to s6.05 of the basin plan, which was tabled in parliament and disallowed by the Senate. Yet, the Warrego purchase was not reflected in the sustainable diversion limits (SDLs) put to parliament as part of the amendments.”

No doubt influenced by the rolling series of untidy revelations, and various pending official investigations at both state and federal level into apparent maladministration, water theft, regulatory capture by powerful vested interests, cronyism and corruption, the Senate knocked them back.

The bigger test will come in early May when the Senate is due to consider another change to the basin plan, which would pull an even bigger amount of water out of the southern basin.

The argument put by the government, its bureaucrats in the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, and counterpart state bureaucracies, is that by some engineering interventions and better management of water flows and other measures, the lower Murray–Darling can sustain its biodiversity even after 605 more gigalitres are pulled out of the system.

Credible environmental scientists are sceptical. Katharine McBride and her supporters are appalled.

Associate Professor James Pittock, of the Australian National University, says an analysis by members of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists showed that of 37 proposed projects intended to protect the rivers, only one was considered to meet standards agreed by the state and federal governments.

“For about half the rest there’s not enough information to judge, and about half fail,” he says.

Once again, the Senate will be considering the matter in the absence of a great deal of relevant information.

Meanwhile, out on the land, things are becoming ever more divided.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "High and dry".

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