Australian Notes

Australian notes

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Labor’s water hypocrisy

What water scandal? ‘I acted on the recommendations of my department which had conducted an independent, competitive and rigorous assessment of applications.’
No, it was not former water minister Barnaby Joyce. And rather than being a defence of 2017’s $80 million water buy-back that has magically re-entered the political fray just before the May election, it was one of the inevitable Labor scandals from their disastrous Rudd/Gillard years. In fact, the speaker was Barnaby’s hypocritical current persecutor, Labor’s hit-man Tony Burke, trying to justify multi-millions of dollars of ‘favourable governmental support’ given when he was the minister to a water buy-back company that ‘appeared to have advance knowledge about the Victorian government’s plan to rationalise the irrigation network’. According to the Age, this company, Sustainable Soils and Farms, involved three former federal MP Labor mates and was chaired by one of them whose conflict of interest eventually got him sacked from his government-appointed position on a Commonwealth-state water buy-back agency.

So, with a skeleton or three in the closet, it was no surprise when Tony Burke last week rejected the government’s referral to the Auditor-General for examination of all water buy-backs going back to 2008 (when Minister Penny Wong changed the rules enabling federal water buy-backs without state involvement).  Instead of the Auditor-General, Labor promises a detailed judicial enquiry but limited only to the current $80m controversy, so avoiding not only Labor government deals that were slammed by the Victorian Ombudsman in a 2012 report but also the reality that Labor was happy to do water buy-back deals with the same Cayman Islands tax-haven company in the Barnaby buy-back (initiated by the Queensland Labor government) that Labor is now crying foul over.

It’s apparently OK for Burke to excuse his paying taxpayers’ money to a Cayman Islands company as Minister in 2011 because he ‘did not know the competitive tender winner’ was from a tax haven and he ‘did not seek to find out where the company was registered for tax purposes’. But it is not OK for Barnaby to say six years later that ‘It was not my job to know who would benefit’ and that his role ‘was not to select a purchaser or determine a price’. And pretending that the cleanskin and impressive energy minister Angus Taylor was somehow tarred with that brush because he had acted as a consultant years previously and had no beneficial interest whatsoever, was simply a pre-election mud-slinging exercise with no substance that fizzled.

Farm and environmental groups are reported by ABC Rural News as saying that any federal enquiry ‘must consider all water deals, look at the process and change it if needed’. They dismiss Labor’s plan as just political. This is blatantly evident from the Burke claim that ‘We don’t see a need, on the basis of what is there publicly, to examine what happened under other ministers’, adding that questions raised in the $80m case have not been asked of any other minister – Burke included.

But it would appear, if reports in the Age are correct, that Burke was not being entirely truthful. Serious questions were raised eight years ago during Burke’s occupancy of the water role, relating to ‘a string of favourable federal and state decisions’ to a company, Sustainable Soils and Farms, chaired by a retired Labor federal MP and involving two Labor ex-MPs (one of whom was ousted from pre-selection for his seat of Maribyrnong by Bill Shorten) who shared in a multimillion-dollar windfall, according to the Age,  as a result of an exclusive exemption to rural water trading rules made in the final months of the Brumby Labor state government. Naturally, the Victorian water minister claimed (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary) that at the time he signed off on the change, he was unaware that the Labor MPs’ company was to be the beneficiary. ‘I was not aware, and nor would it have been necessary for me to be aware, of the ownership of the company when granting such an exemption,’ he said.

This allowed the ex-MPs’ company to sell a 3-billion-litre water entitlement to a joint federal-state buyback scheme. According to the Age’s investigation at the time, the exemption was believed to have been worth an estimated $7 million to their Sustainable Soils and Farms company. Backed by Chinese partners, Sustainable Soils had begun buying drought-stressed farms in northern Victoria, with the Age claiming the company’s strategy was to harness state and federal government funds, both from the former Brumby government’s $2 billion food bowl modernisation project and from the federal water buy-back and irrigation upgrade schemes. The Age claimed that through an associate company, the Labor ex-MPs’ group was given in-principle approval for a $32 million grant under a Gillard government assistance program for irrigation upgrades when Burke was water minister.

And while Sustainable Soils was receiving what the Age described as ‘favourable government decisions and funds’, one of the Labor ex-MPs continued his role as the Victorian government’s representative on Water for Rivers, a joint Commonwealth-State company charged with recovering water from farmers, until – according to the Age – he was sacked for ‘highly inappropriate dealings representing a conflict of interest’ after a damning Ombudsman’s report. This found that, under the Food Bowl scheme, Sustainable Soils and Farms ‘inappropriately received confidential government information and detail about private landowners, obtained commercial advantage not available to other farmers and received preferential treatment from senior officers and consultants’.

Hypocrisy thy name is Labor.

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