The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (15:34): I rise today to speak about watergate: #watergate has hit Australia’s social media in the past few weeks. Like the previous Watergate scandal, it is certainly one of intrigue. It has come to the fore due to the hard work of journalists and, like that American scandal, it may well take down a government. Barnaby Joyce once said that he sacked the head of the agriculture department, Paul Grimes, to ‘remind him where the authority starts from’, and boasted that he ‘got a lot more sense’ out of bureaucrats after that firing.
To summarise the scandal simply, Watergate is where a company, whose former director is energy minister Angus Taylor and with offices in Australia and also the Cayman Islands, bought floodwater valued at $27 million. The company, East Australia Agriculture, is also a Liberal Party donor. Then, years later, that water was sold to the government at river water prices for $80 million.
Former Murray-Darling Basin senior staff member Maryanne Slattery has shown that in fact the department paid 139 per cent higher than the commonwealth had previously paid for the same type of licence, and 85 per cent higher than the average price for more reliable types of water licences.
Barnaby Joyce, the then minister, has since rejected criticism of the sale, stating that Labor struck water deals with the same company when it was in government. However, Labor’s dealings were with competitive tender. Indeed, under Labor and during the first years of the Coalition government water for the environment, under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, was compulsorily acquired.
Furthermore, these buyback deals are a concern for the river, and in particular for South Australia at the end of the river, because for the most part these licences, these deals, are not buying existing water, they are buying the promise of water. These buybacks concern overland flows, so water that only exists after it has rained. Water licences can be valuable, but they do not amount to much if there is actually no water.
Bill Johnson, a former director of environmental water planning at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, has said that this transaction has likely amounted to the purchase of what is called ‘ghost water’. It is unlikely that the commonwealth—and so, of course, the river—got any water at all for this. As a result we now have the Greens, Centre Alliance and—belatedly—the Labor Party supporting a commission, a royal commission or a judicial commission, into these most recent Watergate deals as well as other issues surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin.
The public deserves answers about all the water deals, including Labor’s, that have been going on and whether they have actually provided any benefit to the communities along the river and of course the environment. We have had such an inquiry in South Australia, a state royal commission, although notably we never tested the ability to compel evidence from federal employees.
We are still missing answers, and that royal commission was certainly cut short. We are still missing a response and, more importantly, action. For example, will the socio-economic measures that this state government agreed to actually mean real water for our river, or are we being promised imaginary water yet again?
Of course, it is hard to say whether or not the Marshall government is taking the report of that royal commission seriously at all. This is the same government that did not want that 700-page long report posted on a website for longer than a month. They have still not tabled that state royal commission report here in parliament, and we have certainly not seen formal responses or actions on it.
We need to get serious about water. We need to start putting the flows before bros in this parliament and in all political parties. Just like Watergate and its Deep Throat, and this watergate with their deep pockets, we perhaps need to see a change of leadership before we get those real answers.