Barnaby Joyce’s department paid ‘tens of millions’ too much for water



In the past month, the Agriculture and Water Resources Department has been revealed to have delivered a one-off $37 million profit to a large irrigator near the Menindee Lakes in western NSW.

It also paid more than twice the price per megalitre of previous purchases for water on the Warrego River.

All three purchases were made in 2017 when Barnaby Joyce was the minister.

Fairfax Media sought comment from Mr Joyce, his successor, David Littleproud, the department and Eastern Australia Agriculture.

In the Condamine Balonne purchase, the department paid $2745 per megalitre, well above the $2200 price originally offered by the seller.

The Commonwealth signalled an interest in buying the storage on the properties of Kia Ora and Clyde – which are located near the giant Cubbie Station cotton farm – but ended up only with an agreement to discuss its "future use", the documents show.

"[It] appears that [the department] paid tens of millions of dollars too much," the report said.

The lower security of the water – for so-called Over Land Flow licences – highlighted the overpayment since the water can't be traded with other landholders and is legally attached to the land itself.


"If the water ever flows off the property, it can be captured by adjoining properties, such as Cubbie Station," Maryanne Slattery, senior researcher at The Australia Institute, said.

“So, it is unlikely that the water can actually be used for the environment at all," Ms Slattery said.

“Serious questions need to be asked as to why Barnaby Joyce as water minister signed off on the purchase of such expensive, unsecure water."

According to the report, the payment was about 139 per cent higher – or far more than double – than the Commonwealth had previously paid for that type of licence.

Further, "the purchase appears to be in breach of the Commonwealth Procurement Rules because it was not made available to all licence holders in the valley", the report said.

Tony Burke, Labor's water spokesman, said environmental water buybacks needed to improve the health of the Basin and reach environmental assets such as wetlands. "I can’t see how those conditions have been guaranteed in a purchase like this one and it needs to be explained," Mr Burke said. "If these kinds of overland flow licenses and the purchase contract won’t deliver for the environment then we would look at that closely and see whether provisions can be strengthened. ‘

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Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.

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