explainer

Everything we know about Barnaby Joyce's controversial $80 million water buyback scheme.

In mid-2017, former agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce approved a nearly $80 million buyback of water from Queensland.

He did this because the government had strict targets to reach thanks to Labor’s Murray Basin Plan that came into effect in 2012, in an effort to look after the environment, and ensure we were keeping our water systems healthy.

But this decision by Joyce has been under intense scrutiny, with critics asking why he would buy that particular water given it’s essentially floodwater, and not overly useful.

That, paired with the many weird coincidences, connections and links between MPs, the Liberal Party, and the company involved in the sale, makes the whole situation incredibly murky.

The Quicky delve into the government’s Watergate situation. Post continues after podcast.

A quick history.

Four million people rely on water from the Murray Darling Basin. It’s made up of 23 major rivers of which the water is used for irrigation, agriculture and drinking water.

So much of the Basin’s water is used, hardly any of it actually reaches the mouth of the system in South Australia.

You might remember shocking photos of millions of dead fish floating on the surface of the water in Menindee Lakes, which is a part of the Basin.

dead fish
There have been three mass fish kills in 2019. Image: ABC.

Basically that's due to lack of oxygen in the water, a byproduct of water mismanagement, as well as things out of our control like climate change and drought.

The Rudd government, back in 2008, created a Murray Darling Basin authority whose job it was to create a plan based on scientific research and the amount of water needed to keep the basin and river system healthy.

The plan came into effect in 2012. It gave all of the states and territories with stake in the system allocations of water, along with a series of goals they had to meet to help maintain the river system.

ADVERTISEMENT

This plan was at the centre of a South Australian Royal Commission after the ABC's Four Corners program found that some irrigators were siphoning out water illegally above their allocation or taking water with metres that were turned off or broken, so there was no record of how much they took.

What are buybacks?

A water buyback is where the government literally purchases water entitlements from growers to reduce the amount of water taken from the river.

Once upon a time this was done by a process of open tender.

Water allocation owners registered the price they were willing to sell their water for and the government would pick which offer they wanted.

When Barnaby Joyce was installed as water minister in 2015, that changed.

Barnaby Joyce
Barnaby Joyce being sworn in as Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources in September, 2015. Image: by Stefan Postles - Pool/Getty Images.

The department instead started buying water with direct negotiation with entitlement holders.

A cap of 1500 gigalitres was introduced and Joyce announced it would no longer be a tender process because he claimed it damaged farming communities.

The buyback that caused controversy.

In 2017, the Liberal government bought 26,443 litres of water from Condamine in Queensland, which is owned by the company Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA).

"It's water that's known as overland flows, which is basically flood water that's available only once or twice a decade," The Guardian's Anne Davies explained to The Quicky.

"What the irrigators do is build these levys and storages and as the water travels across these very flat plains in a flood, they harvest it and collect it.

"The trouble is it's quite unreliable water, so there's been a lot of questions around why the government decided to buy this water," she added.

The government bought the water for a grand total of nearly $80 million.

ADVERTISEMENT

"There's a bit of a sense they've picked water that's not very useful," said Davies, who has been following this story closely.

The government, under the Murray Basin Plan has a certain target to meet in terms of recouping money for the environment.

But as Davies explains, critics of this buyout say it'll do nothing, and the Liberal party is just making sure they've "got a number on a piece of paper".

Weird connections and coincidences.

When you start investigating the why, as to the reason the government and Barnaby Joyce decided to approve this sale, it gets murky.

This particular buyback has attracted a lot of attention because of the agricultural enterprise that sold it. It was actually co-founded by another MP, Angus Taylor.

Before he joined parliament he was a consultant, and this was one of the deals he put together.

Angus Taylor
Member for Hume, Angus Taylor. Image: Getty.

Taylor says he had no role in this buyback. He says he sold out of his interests in the company when he joined parliament.

But the EAA's parent company is based in the Cayman Islands, which is a secrecy jurisdiction so it's hard to know who the shareholders of the company actually are.

The plot thickened when it was uncovered Joyce himself was the accountant for the property's former owners back in the day.

"Joyce comes from that area of QLD. He lived in St George which is a nearby town. He is very familiar with the area," Davies told The Quicky.

"A telling thing is, Joyce said 'I had nothing to do with it, the department handled it.' But in fact he put a specific condition on this sale, and there were a couple of others he didn't take an interest in, where he wanted to be kept up to date," she explained.

ADVERTISEMENT

"So far he has been less than forthcoming about what he knew about this sale," she added.

Another weird connection is the fact the EAA donates to the Liberal Party.

"In 2012, they made two donations around the time Angus Taylor was preparing to run for parliament. Now that could be coincidental. It could be just about supporting their former director. We don't know," revealed Davies.

So what now?

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick was the person who demanded the documents about this buyback be made public.

"It's highly unlikely it helped," he told The Quicky. He's referring to the government's attempt to help the environment with this particular buyback.

"The water being purchased is not regular river water, it's water that's overland flow.

"It's unlikely we've had a flood since that water was purchased. So we've paid $80 million and have not got a return on that yet," said Patrick.

He also explains this purchase is problematic because the water can flow onto a property and then back into a river, where it moves to another property and gets scooped up by them and put into storage.

"I doubt any of this water will get to the environment," concluded Patrick.

As for the seemingly dodgy dealings surrounding the buyback itself - the government conducting an audit.

But unlike in the case of a Royal Commission where witnesses and documents can be subpoenaed, a government audit can only look at government documents.

Meaning the power is left in the hands of the Liberal party.

Help required please. In return, there’s a chance to win one of three $100 vouchers. Take our survey now:

MMSurvey
Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. You click, we help. Shooting star illustration.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day.

So just by spending time with Mamamia, you’re helping educate girls, which is the best tool to lift them out of poverty.

Thanks for helping!

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. Girl with pigtails sitting at desk writing in notebook. Row of four books.
Three hands holding books
00:00 / ???