For 72 days, but who is counting, residents of the New South Wales town of Tenterfield have been told to boil their drinking water.
Straight from the tap it reeks of bushfire smoke and heavy doses of chlorine. The community’s filtration system, built in 1932, cannot cope effectively with turbidity levels in the Tenterfield dam that have recently been measured at 60 times the World Health Organisation’s limits. The town’s swimming pool has been closed indefinitely through weeks of extreme heat.
“I don’t think anybody has any idea about how bad it really is herejust inthis locality,” says Helen Duroux, a Kamilaroi traditional owner and chief executive of the Moombahlene Local Aboriginal Land Council.
“When you get to the stage where you can’t turn the tap on and get a drink of water out of it then something is severely wrong.
“It is depressing. We’ve been through a whole range of catastrophes that have brought us to this place to where we can’t drink our water. I’m not the only one asking: where is it going to end, how is it going to end?”
The Tenterfield shire council began advising residents to boil water in early October when the dam levels dropped to about 18% – within months of when the town and its surrounds were expected to run dry.
In late November, a storm brought hail and heavy rain and almost two months’ supply of water. The storm also badly damaged silt traps designed to prevent sediment entering the dam and swept massive amounts of ash and debris from recent bushfires into the catchment.
Images sent to Guardian Australia, taken during a fishing competition held at the dam on 1 December, show large numbers of dead Murray cod, some more than 1m long, and other fish species washed on to the banks.
Residents say the town water supply has at different times smelled of fish, bushfire smoke and chlorine.
“You don’t even feel like having a shower in it”, Duroux says. “Everywhere I turn people are saying you can’t even turn your tap on without that smell coming into your kitchen. We’ve still got to wash up in it, we’ve still got to bathe in it. It’s the saddest situation I’ve ever been in I think.
“My memories of growing up here has always been a beautiful place, beautiful fresh air, beautiful drinking water. I’m very saddened by the way everything has changed in such a short amount of time. We don’t know if it’s ever going to be like that again.”
A worst-case scenario
Stuart Khan, a water security expert from the University of NSW, says the combination of drought, bushfire and a one-off heavy rainfall event is a “worst case scenario” for water supply in areas where facilities are often outdated and not able to cope with extreme circumstances.
“You’ve got a combination of events happening,” Khan says. “First of all you’ve got a drought which means the catchment is very dry. It also means the reservoir level is very low and there’s no opportunity to dilute new flows that come in.
“Fire followed by heavy rain will wash ash into the waterways. There’s also a lot more erosion because you don’t have the trees and roots holding the ground together. Having a reservoir full of soil and sediment and ash is in itself a real problem because it makes water treatment processes more difficult.”
Khan says the strong chlorine smell in Tenterfield’s tap water is probably the result of larger than usual doses being used to kill bacteria.
“When you have high turbidity, that consumes a lot of the chlorine [used to treat the water],” he says. “You have to super-dose the chlorine to … achieve a certain residual concentration. They would be ramping that up.”
Khan says a fish kill in the dam is “exactly what you would expect” from the bushfire ash, which would have created a chemical reaction and taken oxygen from the water supply. He says that despite treatment processes there remains a risk to human health in similar circumstances.
“These might seem like exceptional circumstances but they’re circumstances that can be anticipated to occur. There’s a very strong argument that a lot of towns in New South Wales don’t have the resilience in their drinking water supplies to get through these sorts of scenarios.”
The Tenterfield shire mayor, Peter Petty, says the council is doing everything it can to resolve the situation, including ordering a temporary reverse osmosis treatment system that – combined with water from a new bore – should eliminate the smoky taste and odour within weeks.
Petty says water that passes through the treatment process is tested twice daily to ensure it meets health department guidelines.
“There have been some concerns and people asking for advice and what council is doing. Council is doing everything we can, plus some, to relieve the community of this problem.”
He says the old treatment plant’s “use-by date has passed” and the council has plans to build a new one within two years.
‘People shouldn’t be scared’
Tenterfield holds a special place in the Australian story; the birthplace of Federation and the bush town memorialised by the entertainer Peter Allen, whose grandfather George Woolnough sat on his High Street verandah and made his saddles.
There are stunning million-dollar Federation-era homes set across from places where the realities of remote Australian communities are writ large; a 10% unemployment rate and an ageing community isolated from services.
Few residents question the efforts of local authorities to find an alternative water supply and fix their water problems, but many are angry that temporary measures have not been taken to bring in a supply of fresh and clean drinking water in the meantime.
“If it smells, then it’s not an acceptable clean water source. People shouldn’t have to be scared of the drinking water coming out of the taps,” says Luanna Legge, a local artist who has started Tenterfield Water Relief, a charity to distribute clean water to community members.
On Wednesday, Legge handed out about 2,600L of clean water to several hundred families. She says demand was overwhelming and that speaking to residents about their experiences was shocking.
“I had people with five kids telling me they had to put contaminated water in their kids’ formula because they couldn’t boil or refrigerate enough at a time,” she said.
The charity water scenario is increasingly familiar as towns face “day zero” – the end of their water supply – with desperate residents accessing supply brought by community groups rather than governments.
Legge says she has been assisted by Russell and Sue Wantling, who started Granite Belt Water Relief across the Queensland border in Stanthorpe.
The water comes from the Wivenhoe Dam, less than three hours’ drive to the north, which supplies south-east Queensland.
“I’m doing my best but in the long-term I don’t think it’s a feasible option for people to be setting up charities to bring people clean drinking water, I feel like it should be a government responsibility,” Legge says.
“There are a lot of children here who are about to have one of the worst Christmases of their lives and that doesn’t seem that reasonable that the reason they’re having to have such a tough time is that governments have left us high and dry.
“I feel incredibly angry to be honest. I know a lot of people feel depressed and rejected at being forgotten about.After the horrific fires we’ve experienced here and all the financial burden of the drought these are taxpaying citizens. They pay their rates. These are good people. There’s no justifiable reason why governments shouldn’t be providing them water.”
Legge says the United Nations and World Health Organisation guidelines say drinking water should be an acceptable taste, colour and odour, but that she had obtained legal advice that Australian law was insufficient to force government action in the circumstances.
“We’ve now been living like this for 70 days and I’ve not heard the slightest skerrick of concern for people here,” Legge says. “If people in Sydney were being forced to live the way people in Tenterfield are forced to live, they would be outraged.
“A town of 4,000 people who have been bathing in contaminated water every day for 72 days. Are they going to send someone to see if we’re OK? Where are they?”
*In March, the government released its foreign ownership of water entitlement register, showing that investors from China and the US had the largest stake in Australia’s foreign-owned water entitlements.
It showed that one in 10 water entitlements is foreign owned.
Water restrictions for you, an endless supply for them: How a foreign corporate giant is snapping up 89 BILLION litres of Australia’s H20 as the country suffers its worst drought ever
Singaporean company is selling Australian water for $490m to Canadian fund
It comes as the tightest ever water restrictions are imposed on worried citizens
Olam is selling 89,085 megalitres of its permanent water rights in Australia
A multi-billion dollar Singaporean food company is selling 89,000 megalitres of Australian water to a Canadian pension fund.
The mega sale of Australian permanent water rights comes as the country is crippled by one of the worst droughts in its history.
On Tuesday, NSW brought in a complete ban on hoses as part of the toughest water restrictions implemented for more than a decade.
Bushfires are common in the country but scientists say this year’s season has come earlier and with more intensity due to a prolonged drought and hotter-than-usual temperatures. Pictured is a fire danger rating on Saturday at the Mangrove Dam in Central Coast
The company sold it to an entity associated with the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers, according toStraits Times.
It will use the water to irrigate almond trees, in a business venture likely to draw criticism over foreign ownership of farms and water.
The water rights are in the lower Murray-Darling Basin.
The chairman of the Victorian Farmers Federation’s water council, Richard Anderson, told the Sydney Morning Herald:
‘Really, all you’ve got is a change of ownership, it (the water) has gone from a Singapore-owned company to a Canadian pension fund.
‘It’s a big bulk of water but it’s still being used in agriculture.
‘It’s not as if they’ve just come in as a speculator and said ”we’ll go and buy a big patch of water and we’ll trade it every year”.’
In a separate deal, the same Canadian pension fund has bought 12,000 hectares of almond orchards in Victoria, in a move likely to draw criticism of foreign ownership of farms and water.
Water restrictions in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and Illawarra were upgraded to level two as dam levels in the region sank to just 45 per cent capacity, the lowest levels since the Millennium Drought took hold in 2003.
The crippling drought sees a complete ban on hoses, requiring residents to use a bucket and sponge to wash their cars or a watering can to tend to their gardens.
A parched cattle field near the town of Come By Chance, 700km north-west of Sydney, is pictured in October, with farmers still suffering from the crippling drought
The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted a hot-than-usual summer, with no forecast for significant rain.
The sale is understood to be giving Olam a ‘one-time pre-tax capital gain of about $311 million’, the paper reported.
The agreement is for 25 years, with the option to renew for another 25.
*In March, the government released its foreign ownership of water entitlement register, showing that investors from China and the US had the largest stake in Australia’s foreign-owned water entitlements.
It showed that one in 10 water entitlements is foreign owned.
A water entitlement is the right to an ongoing share of water, which can be sold by irrigators, companies or investors.
Acting as a property right, it gives access to an exclusive share of water from a water resource.
This is different to a water allocation, which is the right to access a volume of water for use or trade.
Under level two restrictions, gardens can only be watered before 10am or after 4pm with a watering can or bucket.
Smart and drip irrigation systems can only be used for 15 minutes before 10am or after 4pm.
Swimming pools and spas will only be allowed to be topped up for 15 minutes a day with a trigger nozzle. A permit will be required before filling a pool that holds more than 500 litres.
Residents caught breaking the rules could face a $220 fine. Businesses who breach the restrictions would also face a $550 fine.Read more:
A Search of primary documents affirms ‘Dark Emu’s’ accuracy …
Bruce Pascoe … love his fascinating documentaries …
As Andrew Bolt attempts to start a culture war over Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, a search of primary documents affirms the book’s accuracy.
By Rick Morton.
Bolt, Pascoe and the culture wars
There is one particular question Andrew Bolt does not wish to answer.
In correspondence with The Saturday Paper, the News Corp columnist was asked three times whether he has read Bruce Pascoe’s best-selling history of Aboriginal Australia, Dark Emu.
Each time, he evaded the question.
It is useful, then, to start an examination of his attacks on the author with this in mind.
A more inconvenient truth is that Bolt’s dislike of Pascoe began at least two years before the publication of the book, which has now become the focus of a minor culture war led by Bolt and others.
Bolt’s efforts to “fact-check” Pascoe’s book are based largely around a website called Dark Emu Exposed.
The site’s contributors cast doubt on Pascoe’s account of an Indigenous history different from the one allowed by colonial interpretation. They also doubt his Aboriginal heritage.
As one prominent Indigenous leader tells The Saturday Paper, on the condition of anonymity, the argument against Pascoe’s work is an extension of “19th-century race theory”, which once espoused the view that race is the major indicator of a person’s character and behaviour.
“Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” the leader says.“WHEN THEY INSIST ON THIS INQUIRY, DO THEY WONDER IF THIS PERSON HAD FAMILY MEMBERS STOLEN FROM THE MISSIONS? DO THEY WONDER IF THEY WERE HIDING TRUTHS BECAUSE OF A CONCERTED EFFORT TO SHAME OR HUMILIATE ABORIGINAL ANCESTRY?”
Pascoe’s book is based on close reading of the original journals of Australia’s explorers. In these journals, he has found new evidence of Indigenous agriculture and development. As the Indigenous leader notes:
“He’s gone to the records and said, ‘Hang on, what does this really mean?’ While some historians with their PhDs have gone to the same original documents and came to the conclusion that we were all backward.”
In Dark Emu, which has sold more than 100,000 copies, Pascoe mounts a convincing argument that Aboriginal people actively managed and cultivated the landscape, harvested seeds for milling into cakes at an astonishing scale, took part in complex aquaculture and built “towns” of up to 1000 people.
That word, by the way – “town” – is not Pascoe’s. That is how one such settlement was referred to by a man in the exploration party of Thomas Mitchell in the mid-1800s.
What some have found so astonishing about Pascoe’s claimed developments is not that they happened – they are right there in Charles Sturt’s and Mitchell’s journals, among many others – but that we, as a nation, could have been so ignorant to their existence.
As Pascoe wrote last year in Meanjin: “Almost no Australians know anything about the Aboriginal civilisation because our educators, emboldened by historians, politicians and the clergy, have refused to mention it for 230 years.
“Think for a moment about the extent of that fraud. Imagine the excellence of the advocacy required to get our most intelligent people today to believe it.”
It is Pascoe’s attempt to shout down this conspiracy of silence that has primed the culture war machine. But why should a successful race of First Nations peoples be such a threat to modern Australians?
The most compelling answer to this question is that it removes a psychological shunt in the mind of European settlers and their descendants that this occupation, this invasion of land unceded, was to save Indigenous people from themselves, to bring civilisation to them.
Of course, it is uncomfortable to later ask: What if this race of First Australians were civilised all along? Maybe we were the barbarians?
Pascoe achieves this questioning with a somewhat controversial manoeuvre.He takes the European ideal of farming and architecture, and thoroughly white notions of success, and applies them, through the primary evidence, to Indigenous Australians.
Asked why he is offended by Pascoe’s assertion of complex farming and settlements built by First Nations peoples, Bolt said he is not.
“So, to answer your insult: I am not ‘offended’ by the thought of Aborigines being ‘well-adapted’ or ‘sophisticated’. How on earth would that be offensive to me? I in fact am determined to change policies and thinking that hold back so many Aboriginal communities that are now in poverty,” he said in a lengthy correspondence with The Saturday Paper.
“I am simply interested in the truth, and opposed to falsehoods … If I’m ‘offended’ by anything it is frauds.
“Or let me put this in the same sneering (again) tone that you used: What is it about Aborigines being hunter-gatherers that so offends you? Where is the shame in how so many Aborigines lived, which makes you feel compelled to imagine them instead as just like good old white farmers – only black? Isn’t this refusal to accept the truth a little, er, racist?”
Bolt has purported to catch Pascoe in the act of faking his Aboriginal identity, as if to cast doubt on the book itself through the use of a skin-tone chart. But Pascoe has long grappled with the necessarily murky past of his own identity. This murkiness speaks to how such relationships on this continent progressed for so long – disguised by violence, shame, lost records and stolen children.
In 2012, Pascoe wrote a response to a column in which Bolt alleged that Pascoe “decided” to be black. This followed a 2011 Federal Court of Australia ruling that found Bolt racially vilified other “light-skinned” Aboriginal people under section 18 of the Race Discrimination Act.
“I can see Bolt’s point, and the frustration of many Australians when pale people identify with an Aboriginal heritage,” Pascoe wrote in the Griffith Review at the time.
“The people he attacked for this crime, however, had an unfortunate thing in common: their credentials were impeccable. Any good reporter could pick up the phone and talk to their mothers about their Aboriginality until the chooks go to roost.
“If I had been part of the group who took Bolt to court for impugning their heritage, he would have had a field day.”
Pascoe tells of the struggle to find his Aboriginal ancestor, which was sketched by family members not so much through what they said but through what they didn’t say. It was an absence that provided clues.
But is this so extraordinary? As Pascoe says, the circumstance “mirrors the turbulence of postcolonial Australia and explains why so many Australian families have a black connection”.
The senior Indigenous leader who spoke to The Saturday Paper excoriated those who pressed this line of attack.
“When they insist on this inquiry, do they wonder if this person had family members stolen from the missions? Do they wonder if this person’s family was dispersed during the frontier wars? Do they wonder if they were hiding truths because of a concerted effort to shame or humiliate Aboriginal ancestry?”
The agitation surrounding Dark Emu, renewed by the announcement of an ABC documentary, has quickly driven a stake through the recently formed advisory group on the co-design for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The group is chaired by Indigenous academic Marcia Langton, a defender of Pascoe’s, and counts Chris Kenny as a member.
Last week, Ken Wyatt, who established the group as minister for Indigenous Australians, backed Pascoe against the conservative onslaught and noted that Australians tend to “question if you are Indigenous”.
“If Bruce tells me he’s Indigenous, then I know that he’s Indigenous,” Wyatt told Kenny on Sky News.
This week, Wyatt told ABC’s Radio National that his office has been receiving calls where staff have been threatened and called “cunts” because he dared defend Pascoe.
“I’ve had one of my staff resign because she can’t cope with being abused over the issue,” he said.
Another of the co-design group’s members, Indigenous lawyer Josephine Cashman, has publicly questioned Pascoe’s ancestry. On Twitter, she stated that her former partner is a Yuin man who says he has never heard of Pascoe. Other Yuin people responded on Twitter, cautioning Cashman for relying on a single man’s testimony.
A week ago, Kenny wrote in The Australian: “Many claims in Dark Emu have been debunked by forensic reference to primary sources.”
But this week The Saturday Paper spent two days at the National Library of Australia reviewing the original documents and explorer accounts in question. They are – at every instance – quoted verbatim and cited accordingly in an extensive bibliography at the end of Pascoe’s book.
Bolt alleges: “They even overlooked the fact that his big hit – Dark Emu – included incredible misquotations of its sources.
“How else could Pascoe have argued that the historians had been wrong. Aborigines had not been hunter-gatherers but sophisticated farmers, living in ‘towns’ of up to 1000 people, in ‘houses’ with ‘pens’ for animals. (Koalas, perhaps?)”
It would take many thousands of words to address all of Bolt’s claims, but it is useful to highlight a few of them. The Saturday Paper put these claims to Bolt.
For example, he says that Pascoe tells the story of Sturt stumbling onto a town of 1000 people on the edge of the Cooper Creek. Dark Emu does not claim this; it instead quotes Sturt correctly on this front, when his party is taken in by “3 or 400 natives” in the area. Bolt says he was referring to a speech Pascoe made where he said there were 1000 people in the town.
*Thomas Mitchell also noted a town of 1000 people in his journals, and the quote is attributed to Mitchell in Dark Emu at the bottom of page 15.
Bolt, when he does reference Mitchell, gets the date of that quotation wrong, too. He says it is from Mitchell’s 1848 journal when, in fact, the quote is from his 1839 journal. This, too, is recorded faithfully in Dark Emu.
Bolt has twice scoffed at the idea of animal yards being found by these explorers.
But Dark Emu records the firsthand account of David Lindsay on his 1883 survey of Arnhem Land, where he says he “came on the site of a large native encampment, quite a quarter of a mile across. Framework of several large humpies, one having been 12ft high: small enclosures as if some small game had been yarded and kept alive … This camp must have contained quite 500 natives.”
In reply, Bolt says: “Maybe they were animal pens, who knows?
“Arnhem Land has, after all, more game than Cooper Creek that might at a stretch be kept in a pen, although it is difficult to imagine what animals might have been kept. Wallabies?”
Again, Bolt says he is not so much quoting from Pascoe’s book as from his lectures, of which the author has done hundreds since Dark Emu’s 2014 release.
However, Bolt frequently conflates the two.
While Bolt mocks Pascoe for speaking at a lecture about a well that was made by Indigenous people and was “70 feet deep”,there are, in fact, a litany of accounts of incredibly sophisticated wells in the journals. Of one, Sturt writes: “… we arrived at a native well of unusual dimensions. It was about eight feet wide at the top and 22ft deep, and it was a work that must have taken the joint strength of a powerful tribe to perform.”
In his rebuttal, the Herald Sun columnist has been forced to accept there were incredibly sophisticated settlements and seed-milling operations, and that Aboriginal people really did give cake and honey and roast ducks to Sturt and his party. The debate has now been reduced to minutiae – questioning how many mills were going and the different depth of various wells.
Bolt responds: “Trust you to attempt to make this about me and not his incredible claims.”
But Pascoe is not alone in his assessments.
Writing in Inside Story this week, Australian National University professor of history Tom Griffiths lauded the book and its addition to a long trajectory of scholarly work.
“My point is that the blindnesses and complacencies that Pascoe rails against are the same silences and lies that Australian historians have been collaboratively challenging for decades now,” he says.
“It’s a job that will never finish. Pascoe is primarily bridling at an older form of history, the history he learnt at school and university 50 years ago.”
Edie Wright, the chair of Magabala Books, which published Dark Emu, told The Saturday Paper:
“We unequivocally support our outstanding author Bruce Pascoe, and celebrate the contribution that Dark Emu has made to bringing a fuller understanding of our history to so many Australians of all ages.”
On Wednesday, Marcia Langton replied to Josephine Cashman on Twitter. The two were previously close.
“The critique of Dark Emu is a job for actual historians not Andrew Bolt & others who benefit financially from tearing apart the lives of people looking for family,” she said.
Looking for family has taken on a mournful quality this week, as Pascoe’s kin went to libraries around the country to find the name of their Aboriginal ancestor. But how to proceed, one must ask, when so much of their story and the story of a people has been destroyed to protect the last excuse for colonisation?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as “Bolt, Pascoe and the culture wars”. Subscribe here.
Among prime ministers’ legacies are the lasting images they leave – the moments of triumph, of humanity, of loss, of leadership.
For Scott Morrison, Australia’s 30th prime minister, the myriad baseball caps/thumbs/beers/pies/balls photographs generically blur, none individually memorable.
Instead, he is on track to be remembered for the indelible sight of proffering a lump of coal to federal Parliament.
If the stunt fits …
The gallery photographers captured the image, the symbolism, for whatever final showreel Mr Morrison receives, but now the stunt has captured the prime minister.
*Ignoring the potential circuit-breaker of the drought and bushfires to exert leadership over the coalition’s fossil-fuel-owned rump and grab a carbon policy in keeping with most Australians’ wishes, Mr Morrison has doubled down in defence of his precious coal.
In the process, he has caught himself up in his own carbon spin cycle.
*The Trump template of telling lies and sticking with them in the face of facts demonstrably works for the faithful.
Climate deniers, like anti-vaxxers, are reinforced by the sound of their own opinions.
*Those with immediate financial incentives – their jobs, their funding, their investments, their political donations – may want to believe what is most comfortable.
*But the repeated spinbecomes entrapment as those in the pragmatic middle ground – those who decide who wins government – physically sense the climate is undeniably changing for the worse.
*All the stunts in Mr Morrison’s repertoire eventually can’t distract from the insurers, the regulators, the central banks and financiers spelling out the obvious: The scientists are right, the fossil-fuel apologists are wrong.
The evidence of our own lived experience accumulates.
Particularly, his line that “we’re only 1.3 per cent of global emissions so we have no impact” has been trotted out and shot down so often as to be useless.
*Cue the now-usual ripostes – we were only a small proportion of allied forces, so we had no impact in war; as a taxpayer, I’m only a tiny proportion of total revenue so there’s no need for me to pay.
The other key lie, “I am up for taking action on it, not just jabbering on about it”, is destroyed in two graphs.
The only way the government can try to claim the billions it’s blowing on “direct action” are achieving something is by cherry-picking the per capita CO2 emissions figure, as the Department of Environment and Energy dutifully highlights in its quarterly national greenhouse accounts.
The graph looks good, but it can’t hide the reality of Australia’s total emissions printed a little later in the accounts – they were falling pretty much until the coalition repealed the carbon tax, subsequently rose and have, at best, plateaued.
The odd politician, such as the relevant environment minister, might try to spin something out of a small movement in one quarter or another, but the simple graph does not deceive.
Man, woman and child, Australians are bloated with greenhouse gases, CO2 bullies on the global stage.
There are a few minor oddities (New Caledonians, Luxembourgers, Gibraltarians) who burn more carbon than individual Australians, but otherwise it’s only the folk of oil and gas dictatorships who manage to flare more than our 16.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per head each year.
We are worse than the infamously gas-guzzling Americans on 16.1 tonnes.
We pass more than three times the CO2 of the average global citizen, more than double the individual Chinese, more than eight times the 1.9 tonnes of the individual Indian.
Personally, I think per capita statistics are the most relevant for the world.
Human-caused climate change is stateless. It is our species’ challenge.
We’re all in this together, which makes it obscene for some of the world’s very richest people, gorged on carbon, to hold back from meaningful action while demanding more from the relatively carbon poor.
It is a lie to pretend the Australian government is “not just jabbering on about it”.
We have the proof of that lie – the image of the lump of coal prime minister.
Ten years ago today, Andrew Robb arrived at Parliament House intent upon an act of treachery.
No-one was expecting him. Robb was formally on leave from the Parliament undergoing treatment for his severe depression.
But the plan the Liberal MP nursed to himself that morning would not only bring about the political demise of his leader, Malcolm Turnbull, but blow apart Australia’s two great parties irrevocably just as they teetered toward consensus on climate change, the most divisive issue of the Australian political century.
*Eighty-four per cent of respondents said that climate change was real and that action was warranted. When offered a range of 19 issues and asked which were of gravest personal concern, climate change ranked at number one.
*As bushfires ravage the landscape and drought once again strangles vast tracts of the continent, the inability of the Australian Parliament to reach agreement on how to answer the threat of climate change — or even discuss it rationally — may well be one of the drivers of another shrieking headline from the Australia Talks research: 84 per cent of respondents also feel that Australian politicians are out of touch with the views of the people they represent. *
This is the story — told on its 10th birthday — of a political event that changed the course of a nation’s history.
How bipartisan policy fell apart
Robb was on sick leave from his job as shadow minister for climate, managing the notoriously difficult transition from one anti-depressant medication to another.
In his absence, acting shadow minister for climate Ian Macfarlane had successfully negotiated, with the authority of Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, a deal with the Rudd government to land the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, or CPRS.
“They wanted 40 per cent, which would have put us far and away above any other country in the developed world,” Rudd says of the Greens.
“There was no scientific justification for a 40 per cent cut. They just knew it was 15-20 per cent higher than anyone else was prepared to offer. They designed it in a manner to cause the negotiations to fail. The negotiations with them were a bullshit exercise.
“And so we had to go to Plan B which was to negotiate with the Liberals.”
Turnbull was of the view that a market mechanism was inevitable. He had Howard’s advocacy of an emissions trading scheme as authority within the party.
And so it came to pass that on Monday, November 23, a deal was concluded between the government and the opposition that Turnbull resolved to put to his shadow cabinet and party room the following day.
Enter the quiet assassin
Robb obtained a confidential copy on the Monday afternoon. He says it horrified him.
“It was a total sell-out, but it was so cleverly crafted that it would look, to the less informed, like we’d won the lottery in the negotiations,” Robb would later write in his memoir, Black Dog Daze.
*He sat up until late that night in his Canberra flat, studying the detail of the deal, rereading Turnbull’s public speeches, and composing an ambush.*
*As Robb arrived at Parliament House on November 24, shadow cabinet was already meeting to approve the CPRS agreement. Shadow ministers *Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz and Tony Abbott were staunch opponents, but were in the minority. All that remained was for the party room to rubber-stamp the deal.
“Malcolm really played it pretty cleverly,” says Robb now. “He got them all in a position where they didn’t have enough information to contradict it so it was all going to go through in a morning. It was all set up, because he’d been negotiating with Labor for months.”
*Robb knew that he could not possibly telegraph to Turnbull that he was an opponent.
“I think his biggest regret, and subsequent verbal attacks, were because I didn’t tell him,” Robb says.
“I didn’t want to do it like that. But you fight fire with fire.”
What happened was this. Robb seated himself in a row near the front of the room, expressed his interest in speaking and waited for the call. Hours passed, as speakers selected by Turnbull spoke in support of the deal, interspersed with opponents who — unfamiliar with the detail — simply restated their generic reservations about outpacing comparable nations in addressing climate change. Robb couldn’t catch Turnbull’s eye.
He became anxious that Turnbull and his lieutenants — manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne and shadow cabinet secretary Michael Ronaldson — had twigged to his scepticism.
An extraordinary tactic
*And so it was that Andrew Robb made one of the most extraordinary and — by most conventional measures — indefensible tactical decisions in the history of political chicanery.
Parliament House is no stranger to mental illness. Historically, its sufferers have covered their tracks, loath to be seen as vulnerable.
*But this must be the only recorded occasion on which mental illness has been used as a tactic.
Robb ripped himself a scrap of paper and scrawled a note to Turnbull.
“The side effects of the medication I am on now make me very tired. I’d be really grateful if you could get me to my feet soon,” he wrote.
Turnbull called Robb to speak soon after. He rose, and denounced the proposed scheme in forensic detail, his words carrying significant weight as the erstwhile bearer of the relevant portfolio.
The deal never recovered. The meeting went on for six more hours. Turnbull — a streetfighter when cornered — added the numbers of shadow Cabinet votes to the “yes” votes in the party room and declared that he had a majority.
The party room wasn’t buying it. Turnbull was cooked.
One week and one day later — December 1, 2009 — a ballot was held for the leadership of the Liberal Party.
Tony Abbott — who nominated against both Turnbull and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey — won by a single vote.
The Abbott opposition was born, with its strident campaign against Labor’s “great big new tax on everything”.
The next day, the emissions trading scheme legislation went to a vote in the Parliament and was defeated soundly.
*Both the Coalition and the Greens voted against.
The Rudd government relinquished its attempts to put a price on carbon. Rudd himself was overthrown mid-2010. Julia Gillard staked her political life on installing a carbon price, but lost it at the 2013 election in the face of Abbott’s muscular anti-carbon-tax campaign.
Abbott installed his “Direct Action” model which survives to this day, despite Turnbull’s subsequent prime ministership, during which he tried and failed to introduce the National Energy Guarantee, a legislative device aimed at establishing reliable supply and reduced emissions from the energy sector.
Julie Bishop, who was deputy leader to Turnbull at the time of the 2009 meeting, says the turn history took that day “was about more than just climate change”.
“It came down to a judgment about the political fortunes of the Liberal party,” she says.
In the previous months, with Turnbull’s knowledge, Bishop had canvassed the views of a great many Liberal MPs about which way the party should jump. It was a party room depleted by the 2007 defeat, intimidated by Rudd’s vaulting popularity, and damaged by the consequences of the Howard government’s overreach on Work Choices, its controversial industrial relations reforms.
What she discovered was a new wave of defiance gathering among the party’s ranks.
“A minority believed that humanity hasn’t had the claimed effect on the climate,” she says.
“There were divided views. But the majority simply wanted to draw a line in the sand on the issue and they wanted to fight Rudd.”
‘You can still see the scars’
For Kane Thornton, chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, the past 10 years are a tale of intense frustration.
“What happened back then has just so fundamentally shaped the direction and the context for climate and energy policy ever since,” he says.
“Even now, in discussion and debate you can still see those scars. Every political leader — across both major parties — has been very substantially impacted by this issue. Going right back to John Howard in 2007.
“What that means is that what is otherwise a very sensible and accepted approach — putting a price on carbon — is now so difficult that governments either aren’t prepared to go there or it’s done in such a way that there’s such a narrow field of politically palatable options that it’s almost pointless.”
Rudd despairs of the contemporary impasse on climate policy.
“Where has the complacent country got to, where in the case of the major geostrategic risks washing over our shores — the climate change debate and the China debate — we seem to have reduced these issues to a juvenile slanging match rather than a mature debate?”
Visiting Sydney this week, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, British-born Michael Liebreich, was brutal in his assessment of Australia’s contemporary energy situation.
Dear Australians. I woke up this morning choking on the smell of bushfire smoke in my hotel room. This is your Opera House. UK got off coal in 7 years; Norway is preparing for life after oil. What is your plan? Where is your leadership? Where are your leaders? This is shameful!
“It’s unbelievable how you can have a country with such cheap solar power, such cheap wind power, frankly such cheap natural gas and yet you still have expensive power and an unreliable grid,” he told ABC’s AM.
“I mean, how do you do that? It’s a government failure.” *
*Turnbull, in an interview published yesterday by The Guardian, said the climate debate in Parliament was hostage to “insurgents” inside the Coalition.*
“There are plenty of odd beliefs out there and conspiracy theories but what I have always struggled to understand is why climate denialism still has the currency that it has, particularly given the evidence of the impact of climate change is now so apparent, and it is particularly apparent to people living in regional and rural Australia,” he said.
“Precisely what has been forecast is happening.”
Rudd believes that the CPRS — if legislated — would have stuck.
“Had the Greens and the others acted responsibly, we’d be 10 years into an adjustable carbon price which would have brought about the transition away from coal,” he says.
Turnbull, too, has assured associates that if legislated, the CPRS would have become “part of the fiscal furniture, like the GST”.
The Greens, incidentally, are so accustomed to being accused of blowing Australia’s chances at an emissions trading scheme that they’ve taken out space on their website to address the charge.
The response reads:
“Here’s the short answer: we voted against the CPRS because it was bad policy that would have locked in failure to take action on climate change.
“According to Treasury modelling, under the CPRS there would have been no reduction in emissions for 25 years. The CPRS was incredibly generous to polluters, allowed unlimited access to dodgy international permits and would have resulted in a carbon price of around $1 over the past decade.
“It simply would not it have led to any change in behaviour by big polluters, while any attempt to strengthen the scheme would have resulted in billion dollar compensation payouts to big polluters.“
How did the UK do it?
In the UK, notwithstanding the compelling train wreck of Brexit, Westminster has somehow found time this year for bipartisan agreement to the target of a zero-emissions economy by 2050.
So why, in Australia, is climate still such a lancingly divisive issue?
“I think there’s got to be something about how the issue was first dealt with,” Kane Thornton says. “There was a tipping point where in this country this issue became highly contentious.”
It was Margaret Thatcher who first brought the greenhouse effect to the broad attention of the British voting public; this was in the 1980s, when her temporary “green phase” coincided neatly with her forced closure of British coal pits amid an industrial war on militant miners’ unions.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who governed in coalition with the Liberal Democrats,pushed an ambitious climate agenda in his party and suffered minimal internal damage compared to the Turnbull experience.
“I do reflect on where we would be right now if John Howard won the 2007 election with an ETS and a commitment to a higher but still modest [Renewable Energy Target],” Thornton says.
“My guess is we’d be in a very different position right now.”
According to Julie Bishop, the strength of feeling on the issue within the modern Coalition is both economic and political in origin.
“Australia’s economy has been built on the back of abundant supplies of low cost coal,” she says.
“We’ve had the competitive advantage of being a coal-based economy.
“For some people, it’s about that. That we’re turning our backs on our own competitive advantage.
“For others, it’s seen as symbolic of the divide between the economic wets and dries.”
The one sliver of common ground
One shred of bipartisanship has survived the 10-year political impasse — the Renewable Energy Target (RET), introduced by John Howard in 2001 and expanded by the Rudd government with support from the Turnbull opposition to a mandatory 20 per cent of generation by 2020.
Back then, the RET was intended to work with the ETS; an industry policy for the emerging renewables sector, while the price on carbon set a longer-term investment signal.
But for 10 years now, the RET has batted on unaided, surviving a fairly serious attempt on its life by the Abbott government in 2015. The target for high energy users was met in September this year.
“The regrettable truth is that right now, the only policy mechanism that is effectively working on Australian carbon emissions reduction is the policy brought into effect by my government 10 years ago, and that’s the mandatory Renewable Energy Target,” Rudd says.
“It’s the only instrument doing the heavy lifting.”
Kane Thornton says the RET has provided a measure of certainty.
*On this continent, renewables are growing at the fastest rate in the world, on a per capita basis — 10 times faster than the global average. Australia has seen $25 billion of investment in big wind and solar farms in the past two years.
*”That’s been driven fundamentally by the economics — that the cost of renewables just keeps coming down — it beats coal, gas and nuclear,” Thornton says.
“Despite the policy wars, despite the brawling between the Commonwealth and the states, the fundamental economics have just kept trucking on.
Households, too, have made a startling investment in renewables.
“Look at rooftop solar, which is up there as a world leader in terms of the numbers of households and small businesses that have taken it up,” Thornton says.
“There are now over 2 million homes where the owners have said, ‘well, energy prices keep going up and it seems really messy. I want to take some kind of control. I want to push on despite the chaotic politics around energy’.”
*The RET has delivered support for the growth of renewables. And the conventional resources sector is in a state of transition: BHP is reported to be moving ahead with plans to exit thermal coal, while coal giant Glencore has announced plans to limit production and Rio Tinto has removed its exposure to thermal coal entirely.
A sliding-doors moment
Andrew Robb conquered the black dog and subsequently served as trade minister in the Abbott government. When the prime ministership fell to Turnbull in September 2015, he was retained for several months as a cabinet minister by the man whose downfall he had hastened back in 2009.
Robb says while he is not proud of the method he employed, he has never entertained second thoughts about what he did that day.
“I’ve got absolutely no regrets because we’ve still got a lot of industries that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he says.
“We’ve got cleaner coal, cleaner everything. If you’re going to wind down coal, we should be the last place to go, not the first. But there we were, opening the door to Africa and lots of places with no restrictions.”
Robb admits that his was an extraordinary intervention in a sliding-doors juncture of Australian political history.
“I’ve seen so often in my career where something monumental gets down to one vote. Then when the vote’s taken, it sticks, and the world adjusts. It was the beginning of Tony — who won by one vote. Democracy’s an amazing thing, really. And it does show you that if you’ve got half of the votes or just over half or just under, that can reflect community attitudes too,” he says.
“This is not a fault of democracy, it’s a fact.”
He mentions that when he was a much younger man, he was “a great student” of the Club of Rome, an association of scientists, bureaucrats, politicians and public thinkers who in 1972 published the book Limits To Growth, warning that the world’s resources could not withstand the depredations of ceaseless economic growth indefinitely.
Limits To Growth is still the highest-selling environmental book in the history of the world, having sold 30 million copies in more than 30 languages.
But Robb’s early fascination with the work gave way to distrust of its conclusions and primitive computer modelling; he says its warnings of resource exhaustion and economic collapse towards the end of the 20th century were overstated.
“The thing they didn’t talk about was technology. That you could find gas 300 kilometres offshore, for example, and find a way to bring it onshore. Because of this, the Club of Rome — which was quite a reputable group of people — looked more and more ridiculous as the years rolled on.”
The Club of Rome has its critics and its defenders; Limits To Growth was commonly derided by the 1990s as a misguided Doomsday scenario, but has enjoyed something of a renaissance lately.
*The CSIRO published a paper in 2008 finding that the book’s 30-year modelling of consequences from a “business as usual” approach to economic growth was essentially sound.*
But what’s not deniable is that this work influenced one young man who grew up to be one member of a parliamentary party with a singular role to play in one vote on a policy that would either change or not change the course of a country.
Democracy, he says, is an amazing thing.
Or an infuriating thing. Or mysterious. Or random.
The corporate business buying farmland and water across the southern Murray-Darling plans to farm the land and says it is not a water speculator.
goFARM has bought 12 farms in the Murray Valley in 12 months from farmers leaving the industry in droves due to water supply issues
Concerns have been raised that the agricultural corporate is investing in this land as a water speculator
The company says that it plans to invest in the land, converting it to more valuable farmland, looking at fruit and nut crops, among others
In a year, goFARM Australia has bought over a dozen properties and their water entitlements in the Murray Valley in northern Victoria, and is embarking on a plan to redevelop them into what they call ‘high value agriculture’.
The company, which is jointly owned by the Costa family and managing director Liam Lenaghan, gathers together investors to buy farmland.
It already owns or manages nearly 60,000 hectares in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania but its latest focus on irrigation land in a struggling part of the Murray-Darling that has the farming community watching.
Due to low water allocations, high water prices, frustration with the Murray-Darling Plan and the low price of milk, dairy farmers in the Goulburn Murray irrigation district in northern Victoria have been leaving the industry in droves.
“We think there is a lot of potential in the region and it’s primed for investment,” go FARM’s managing director, Mr Lenaghan, said.
“We see the local infrastructure, the towns, the people, the schools, the hospitals, roads, government investment in irrigation infrastructure, the quality of the soil, the climate and of course the blend of water resources that are here.”
Dairy no more
The company is buying dairy farms and, like a property developer, plans to invest in the land to make a more valuable farm.
“Our emphasis is which crops, what techniques and driving a high-margin food crop,” Mr Lenaghan said.
The cows are gone, the fences are gone, the troughs have been removed, some trees have been cut down and the company has spent a lot of money analysing and developing the soils.
Ten tonnes of chicken manure per hectare and five tonnes of gypsum per hectare have been added to the soil and in the short term the farm will grow corn for human consumption.
The makeover will not end there, with the company planning to extract even more value from the land.
“Inevitably that will probably mean fruit and nut crops,” goFARM’s chief farming officer, Nick Raleigh,said.
“We think this region is strongly suited to walnut production — we’re researching that.
“We have a level of interest in pistachio nuts but there are some difficulties there with the risk of damp Autumns.
“There are a number of fruit crops that we’re interested in and we’re grappling with those … but it will take some time.”
Not every farm is getting the makeover treatment.
Mr Raleigh explains that the company is leasing approximately 75 per cent of its land whilst it works on and tests its decisions on a select few.
The company’s aim is that its capital and research can make its farming business a success where family dairy operations have struggled during the last decade.
Questions about water resources
Concerns have been raised over goFARM’s ambitions to own high value water resources especially in Katunga deep-lead bore region of northern Victoria.
Water in the Murray-Darling is increasingly a scarce and valuable resource and documents have shown that the company plans to own 50 per cent of the water licences from the ground water system.
As of February, goFARM product, the Akuna Trust owned more than 17 per cent of the Katunga deep lead aquifer and 3,000 hectares of land.
Mr Lenaghan is unapologetic about the strategy to own water, saying the water is being used for agriculture, not as a way to speculate in water trading markets.
“I want to be clear on one point and that is that this investment is not a water-trading operation,” he said.
“We are buying farms with existing water entitlements and we are investing heavily in the use of that water to create revenue, jobs and opportunities.”
Mr Lenaghan said the company needs to own access to irrigation water in a variety of ways to prepare the business to grow the most food possible even in a dry year.
“Our strategy is about buying land with existing water entitlements, whether that be [licences in] high-security Murray, low-security Murray, Shepparton irrigation spearpoint [groundwater] and or Katunga deep lead water,” he said.
“We got all of those water entitlements as a portfolio approach and it is about adding one plus one and trying to create three through that investment.”
The investment does not stop with just buying water licences.
New bores have been built on some goFARM investments to better access use the water the business has purchased.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Time is a precious commodity. And it is rapidly running out for the Federal Government on two key fronts.
With fires raging across a parched eastern Australia, exacting an intolerable toll on life and property even before the onset of summer, the Government is facing a growing backlash against its long-held belief that our energy should be generated by antiquated, coal-fired steam engines that pollute the atmosphere and accelerate the onset of global warming.
Given the prospect of another scorching summer, pressure is likely to build for a coherent, science-based climate and energy policy given the devastating impact climate change is having on the nation and the economy.
*It’s now clear that it is not just rising sea levels that pose challenges for Australia as rural output declines and the economy takes a direct hit — not from drowning, but burning.
*Equally contentious is Canberra’s rigid determination to deliver a budget surplus even as the economy weakens, which runs the risk of transforming a prolonged downturn into something quite ugly.
It’s a stance that has put it at loggerheads with an increasingly desperate Reserve Bank now being forced to canvas an array of unpalatable policy options in an effort to stave off recession.
At the May federal election, financials trumped the environment, once again validating the advice to Bill Clinton in his campaign against George Bush: it’s the economy, stupid.
Both issues, however, have begun to intersect and being behind on both fronts at the next election would be political suicide.
Rate cuts not enough to boost growth
There’s little doubt interest rates will be cut to 0.5 per cent by February and that, in the absence of direct government stimulus, rates will be lower than otherwise necessary and for a much longer period. Every economic indicator is weakening.
Inflation has been below stall-speed for almost four years.Growth is sputtering, at its slowest since the financial crisis a decade ago. Wages growth has stagnated to near all-time lows. Retail spending is in reverse. Household debt, meanwhile, remains among the highest in the world.
Cutting interest rates — the only real tool the Reserve Bank has — is supposed to encourage households and businesses to borrow and spend, thereby lifting demand, boosting profits and economic growth.
That’s not happening, and you don’t need to be an economist to understand why. Australian households are hocked to the eyeballs, coming in near the world’s most indebted at around 200 per cent of income.
That’s no bad thing in itself. But it illustrates a key phenomenon that John Maynard Keynes noted. When things look like turning ugly, consumers pull in their horns and spend less. That makes a downturn even worse.
Insurers, power generators, steel producers and a host of major Australian corporations have embraced the idea that climate change is real, that it is a long term threat to their business and that immediate action needs to be taken. Globally, companies like Shell and BP, major hydrocarbon producers, are committed to a renewable energy future.
For 20 years, however, there has been no consensus in Canberra,no coherent climate policy and repeated failures on energy policy with a continued push from some quarters to produce electricity from new coal burning steam engines.
It is debatable that even a shift to a completely renewable energy economy would have halted the devastating drought and fires spreading across the nation. But if we are to become one of the worst affected nations from climate change, perhaps it’s time to take a leading role in affecting change.
Privacy rules mean it’s hard to get a picture of who owns water and tracking what they do with it is even trickier. But its owners, especially those with licences for high-security permanent water, are enjoying a boom, as low dams and depleted supplies send prices soaring.
QUERY … with ownership of our land and water … some of which is owned by the UK … what percentage is owned by those from Hong Kong?
With foreign buyers gaining Permanent Residency … it would seem this would conceal the real percentage of ‘foreign ownership’?
IT would appear once again ‘greed’ is behind our woes … because obviously with the competition of foreign buyers … the price goes up … locking out those wanting to get into the market … the flip side it provides more for those retiring … as Australia loses out to the foreign buy-up …
Who owns Australia’s land and water?
Published: October 2019 I By: Genevieve Barlow
You might be surprised about which foreign entities are buying up Australia’s prime agricultural land and water. What does this mean for future food security?
Canada is the top foreign buyer of prime Australian agricultural land followed by China and the United States. Source: iStock.
THIRD-GENERATION Condobolin farmer Peter Stuckey had just leased land 80km south of his broadacre cropping farm, when the farm next door hit the market. Although he had committed to a five-year lease on 2,400 hectares of dryland cropping country, he bought the neighbouring farm, bringing his owned holdings to 10,000ha.
It’s a familiar scenario across NSW – despite the big dry and with land prices hitting new highs, farming families, driven by record livestock and commodity prices, have been buying up big.
“No-one has any money and it’s tough weatherwise, but we thought we may as well have a go. And the banks were happy to support us,” says Peter.
Families like the Stuckeys are expanding their holdings. But overseas investors, for whom the sliding Australian dollar has offered added incentive, are giving them a run for their money. That rivalry comes from an unexpected quarter – Canadians, not the Chinese according to conventional wisdom, are leading the charge.
Even so, local buyers are holding their own in the market, and everyone from international real estate agents down to small specialists say that families still own and operate most farming operations in NSW.
Peter Stuckey from Condobolin is one of many NSW family farmers buying up land. Source: Newspix.
“Even though we are big in the space with foreign buyers and pension funds, the consolidating family farm is the most active component of the market, in transactions and aggregate value,” says Danny Thomas, regional director, agribusiness transactions, valuation and advisory services at commercial real estate specialist CBRE.
“We’ve been on the back of probably the longest bull run in land prices I’ve experienced in 30 years of kicking around,” says his colleague Col Medway, who heads CBRE’s rural transaction business in NSW and the ACT.
He adds that good seasons had left farm balance sheets in good order. “On top of that, we have livestock commodities trading at new levels and interest in agricultural land from foreign capital.
“On a lot of farms, 20-somethings are returning home and are keen for expansion. Although they don’t get the press, family farms are the largest players in the property market by volume.”
Agricultural land values forecast to plateau in 2020
That said, the bull run could be slowing. Rabobank agricultural analyst Wes Lefroy reports in the bank’s Australian Agricultural Land Price Outlook that while ag land prices have been “on fire”, he predicts those in NSW, especially in drought-affected areas, will plateau in 2020.
“With dry conditions forecast to continue, we expect demand for ag land will decrease and properties on the market to slightly increase.”
Some argue the slowdown is already happening. The Rural Bank’s 2019 Australian Farmland Values report reveals that in 2018 the number of ag land transactions in NSW fell 18% compared to the year before. The area sold – 1.58 million hectares – fell 28.2% and the value also dropped, down 8%.
Jason Haines, of QPL Rural Real Estate in the Riverina, says corporate investors, both local and foreign, generally seek larger land parcels.
“Corporates are interested in 10,000-15,000 acres [4,000-6,000ha] when it’s dry and we mostly have areas of 2,000-3,000 acres. Most of the competition for that is coming from strong farming families.” But all investors are waiting to see what happens with the season, he says.
“There has been no market correction yet,” says Danny Thomas of CBRE. “But whereas we might have had five or six parties trying to deploy money into the market up around Moree, Goondiwindi and Narrabri two years ago, we might only have one or two. The prices aren’t going down. It’s just that the field is thinning out.”
Who is buying Australian agriculture land?
Sources: Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land 2018 and Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements 2018, Australian Taxation Office, Foreign Investment Review Board Annual Report 2017–18
Foreign interests own around 4.6% or 2.5 million hectares of agricultural land in NSW and the ACT, according to the 2017-2018 Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land. This compares to 13.4% nationally – where the United Kingdom tops the foreign ownership charts, followed by China and then the US.
85% of foreign-owned land is held for livestock purposes.
9.4% of the Murray Darling Basin’s water entitlements have a level of foreign interest ownership.
Surprisingly perhaps, in terms of value, Canada took the lead nationally as the largest foreign investor in Australian agriculture last year, displacing China. Canadian investment was largely driven by pension funds. Canada was followed in 2017-18 by China and the United States, and then by Dutch and UK investors.
Sources: Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land 2018, Australian Taxation Office, Foreign Investment Review Board Annual Report 2017–18.
In total, 201 foreign interests received approval from the Foreign Investment Review Board to spend $7.9 billion on agriculture, fisheries and forestry assets in Australia – up from $7 billion in 2015/16. Approval is only required if purchases exceed $15 million.
Philip Jarvis, managing director of agricultural investment adviser Direct Agriculture, says that Canadians and Americans are by far our largest foreign investors, and that Chinese interest is waning.
This year Rifa Salutary, the Australian arm of China’s Zhejiang Rifa Holding Group, began offloading its entire portfolio of 14 rural properties, totalling 44,000ha, which it had amassed since 2014. This includes three large properties in NSW: Cooplacurripa Station near Gloucester, Ashleigh Station near Moree, and Middlebrook Station near Tamworth.
“Over the past four years we have seen probably the greatest influx of Chinese capital into Australian agriculture we have ever seen and it’s retreating,” says Philip. “If there is a washout of Chinese capital, you are going to see the Saudis and Emiratis come into Australia. It’s just the ebb and flow of capital.”
Who is buying Australia’s water?
While foreign ownership of agricultural land can be a contentious subject, it is the overseas investment in water that has recently become the more controversial.
As water hits record prices, its ownership and use are coming under increasing scrutiny.
Sources: Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements 2018, Australian Taxation Office, Foreign Investment Review Board Annual Report 2017–18.
While about 18% of water entitlements in NSW are held for the environment, the rest, about 12,000 gigalitres (GL), goes to agriculture, mining and tourism. Of this and the ACT’s entitlements, foreign interests own 8.7%, with most of that used for agriculture.
The Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements does not analyse which foreign entities have bought the water by state or territory.Across the nation, however, interests registered in China hold the most, closely followed by the US, and then the UK and Canada. All up, the proportion of total water entitlement on issue in the Murray-Darling Basin with a level of foreign ownership is 9.4%.
The total number of foreign usage of water. Sources: Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements 2018, Australian Taxation Office, Foreign Investment Review Board Annual Report 2017–18.
Privacy rules mean it’s hard to get a picture of who owns water and tracking what they do with it is even trickier. But its owners, especially those with licences for high-security permanent water, are enjoying a boom, as low dams and depleted supplies send prices soaring.
Across the state, water trade is most dynamic in the Murrumbidgee and Murray valleys as well as the Lachlan River catchment. In mid-September, high-security permanent water in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was selling for up to $7,500/megalitre (ML), while permanent groundwater sales in the Lower Murrumbidgee reached $4,350/ML.
Rod Carr of economics consultancy Marsden Jacob Associates says water prices have more than doubled in two years.
“If you were trying to buy high-security permanent water in the Murrumbidgee Valley now it would cost $7,700-$8,000/ML. A few years ago, it would have been $2,500-$3,000/ML.”
Almond trees in bloom. Source: iStock. Those paying the high prices are buying precious water for permanent plantings such as almonds, citrus, table and wine grapes, says Ruralco Water general manager Phil Grahame. And as with land purchases, family farmers are holding their own against the big overseas investors.
“It’s a mixture of family operators and corporates among the permanent plantings – family operators are quite significant,” he says. “The price at the moment is too high and there’s a fear that, if it doesn’t rain, it will go up further.”
Cotton farmers are paying high prices to buy water for their crops. Source: iStock.
Such sky-high prices are prohibitive for annual croppers, he adds. “The gross margins for cotton could support a price of about $300/ML. Last year cotton growers paid $400/ML and, in some cases, more.”
Water investments prioritised over agricultural land
Little wonder there is a trend is for retiring farmers to sell their land and keep their water as an investment, with up to 5% of licences owned by retired farmers, according to Phil. “They sell their allocation each year to get an income and the capital growth has been strong.”
Some landowners are selling water to fund expansions. And others are even selling water instead of planting crops. Central West NSW cropper Fred Vella who owns Mulgutherie Station near Condobolin with his son, Ryan, sold 1,100ML of temporary water recently for $552,000 to an almond grower further down the Lachlan Valley.
Fred Vella, his son Ryan and daughter-in-law Clara with their wheat crop. Source: Fairfax.
He still holds 9,000ML of permanent water. At about $500/ML it’s the highest price he’s known temporary water to sell for in the Lachlan River catchment. “Cotton is the best crop you can grow with the water, but this year, we sold the water because it’s worth more now than waiting to get a cotton crop in 10 months,” Fred says. “We took the money now and then, if it rains and we get another water allocation, we’ve got the ground ready to put the cotton in.”
Tracking foreign investments and interests in Australian agriculture land
Overseas investors face scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board when buying or selling agricultural land in Australia. Approval is required if the total value of their holdings exceeds $15 million. Exceptions apply to investors from Australia’s trade agreement partners and foreign government investors.
Regardless of value or whether approval is required, all foreign investment in agricultural land must be notified to the Australian Taxation Office Register of Foreign Ownership, within 30 days of buying or selling.
Peter Wilson, chair of NSW Farmers’ Business, Economics & Trade (BEAT) Committee, says: “NSW Farmers has lobbied long and hard for the land Register of Foreign Ownership, which has been part of government policy for several years now.”
NSW Farmers wants to see the threshold for Foreign Investment Review Board approval of agricultural land purchases brought down to $5 million – and this should be cumulative. “If that same entity wants to buy more they still have to get approval,” Peter explains. “They can’t just keep buying in lots of $5 million and not get the approval.”
Fundamentally, he adds, NSW Farmers is not opposed to foreign investment. “There are concerns that foreign owners put up the price for those wanting to get into the market – but the flip side is it provides a market for those wanting to retire and also helps bring in money for innovation.”
Peter says there are positive stories for communities from foreign investment. “If you look at cotton gins, like in our town at Trangie, it was originally established by foreign interests from America, which was a big lift for our district, back in the early 1970s.”
On the other hand, he hears complaints from members that they’ll go along to a sale where they’re competing against foreign bidders, “and they’re bid out of the market”.
Water security and cattle prices a top priority for Holbrook farmer Third-generation farmer Andy Watson recently sold 1,153ha of bore-watered cattle country at Holbrook, for “north of $4,000 an acre”, buying 812ha with 12km of Murray River frontage west of Albury for “not quite double” the price.
His new property includes 1,000ML of high-security bore water and 300ML of general security water from the river, currently on zero allocation.
Andy will graze cattle there, selling into the grass-fed market. Driven by the land price boom and the chance to secure water, he’s done what his family has done for generations – he’s realised an asset in boom times. “We have never seen real estate prices like this now and a lot of the demand is from western and northern people chasing rainfall. Water is the reason we’re here. We should probably be growing spuds, not cattle, but we’ll stick with cattle because beef will go through a high.” The family that bought his farm are from further north near Dubbo. They, too, came south for rain, says Andy. “They’re all chasing rainfall. In the past five years there’s probably been 12,000-16,000ha around Holbrook change hands.”
Some vendors were farmers without successors, selling at a high. “It’s their superannuation. They can go buy a house on the Gold Coast, downsize or buy another farm.”
Foreign buyers chase higher rainfall areas and irrigation By area, most foreign-owned land in Australia is devoted to livestock production, but in value terms its biggest share lies in horticulture, according to Rabobank’s Wes Lefroy. “Foreign investment is heavily weighted towards livestock production, but pastoral grazing land is of less value compared with other production types such as cropping and horticulture.”
Foreign interests in the horticulture sector account for 36% by area and 23% by value, he says. “Foreign and corporate investment, rather than family farms, have tended to be more focused on horticultural production, underpinned by the positive outlook in permanent crops and the scale and high capital costs involved in some of the new developments.”
To make such horticultural activity possible in the middle of the big dry, buyers are chasing properties with higher rainfall or irrigation infrastructure while also rethinking what they are growing. For local landholders, meanwhile, water has become a seriously saleable commodity.
Citrus orchards are highly prevalent in the Griffith region, NSW. Source: iStockphoto.
“The big shift is from rice and cotton into permanent plantings,” says Philip Jarvis of Direct Agriculture, adding that irrigated farming country is the most sought-after asset. But, he cautions, these plantings might be thirstier than expected and, thanks to high water prices, don’t always generate the return hoped for.
“There’s a love affair with almonds and citrus in the Murrumbidgee and Murray valleys, but a lot of people did their sums on using 12ML/ha. As the trees come into production and get older, they are pumping up to 20ML/ha,” Philip says.
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In the florid prime ministerial tale unfurled on Friday at the Queensland Resources Council (and boy folks, it was a doozy), progressivism wanted to tell you what job you can have, what you can say, what you can think “and tax you more for the privilege of all of those instructions that are directed to you” – which made progressivism kind of busy, and a whole lot more organised and efficient than progressivism generally is.
We could, on Friday, have been treated to a measured prime ministerial reflection on the problems associated with cancellation culture. The Labor frontbencher Clare O’Neil showed this week that conversation can be attempted without everyone losing their minds. We could have had some words to bring the country together.
But after a brief touchdown in the goat’s cheese circle, which was somehow intrinsically hostile to mining in ways that weren’t really unpacked (and perhaps that might have been risky, given Morrison was addressing a business lunch where goat’s cheese might, accidentally, have featured) – we arrived, unexpectedly it must be said, at the sneering apocalypse.
Morrison warned that a new breed of #RadicalActivism™ was on the march, “apocalyptic in tone, brooks no compromise, all or nothing, alternative views not permitted – a dogma that pits cities against regional Australia, one that cannot resist sneering at wealth creating and job creating industries, and the livelihoods particularly of regional Australians including here in Queensland”.
Apart from this being overhyped, high-velocity bollocks, it pays to remember right at this juncture that the actual purpose of Morrison’s address on Friday was to foreshadow a government crackdown against forms of activism and protests that the Coalition and the mining industry finds inconvenient.
So, just in case this unclear, let me spell it out: we were being treated to the spectacle of a prime minister teeing off against intolerance while in the same breath foreshadowing his own bout of government sanctioned intolerance – the type where police might be involved, and people might be bundled away in vans.
Yes, that happened. I saw it, because the prime minister’s speech was broadcast outside Queensland. It wasn’t always clear that Morrison knew the audience looking on at lunchtime on Friday might be broader than the residents of central Queensland, but it was broadcast nationally. To the south-east corner of the sunshine state, and Sydney, and Melbourne.
Unremarked in this stirring presentation was the fact that climate-related activism is building right at the moment, both at the community level, from the schoolkids to the grandmas, and also at the shareholder level, in large part because the Coalition has invited it.
The government who finds this activism inconvenient is the same government who has sparked the activism, given its purpose and salience and traction, because of its own woeful record on climate change.
In some circles, that sort of behaviour – where you massively bugger things up, and someone has the temerity to call you on it, either individually, or institutionally – is known as an own goal.
But that kind of introspection, the kind where you reflect and arrive at an epiphany that you might just have brought this upon yourself, is of course unhelpful if you are a prime minister intent on making your reality – a made-up world where there are goodies, and baddies, and you and your mates are the goodies, and everyone else should just shut up, and if you don’t shut up, we just might make you.
Which is where funny – “look at that politician engaged in a massive, winking, narrowcasting, try-on on a Friday lunchtime” – turns just that bit sinister. Just that little bit over the top. Just that little bit threatening.
Apart from the perversity of a government railing against a set of conditions it has, itself, created, there was also the curiosity about carbon risk, which was presented implicitly by Morrison as a fiction of progressivism, #RadicalActivism™ and the sneering apocalypse.
Instead of participants in the economy making clear eyed assessments about the medium and long term, winding down their exposure to carbon intensive businesses given the future that governments have signed up to, including the Morrison government, is one of carbon constraint – rational behaviour is presented as some kind of pernicious conspiracy against wealth creation.
As if wealth can only be created in one way, by one group of people.
This strange diktat will be news to the regulators – the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission – who are calmly out in the marketplace warning stakeholders on a regular basis to get their houses in order or risk being stranded in the inevitable transition, who present carbon risk as what it is: a threat to financial stability in Australia.
They’ll be astonished to learn they are the unwitting tools of the deep progressive state, co-opted by the noisy Australians. Shh, no one tell them.
New Murray–Darling Basin inspector-general Mick Keelty is pushing for tough expanded powers to get answers from those responsible for the river system’s chaos. By Karen Middleton.
Former AFP chief eyes water officials
Water whistleblowers will be protected, and obstructionist public officials sanctioned, under powers enabling the new Murray–Darling Basin inspector-general, Mick Keelty, to tackle corruption and overextraction in the nation’s largest river system.
Keelty has confirmed powers similar to those of a standing royal commission are being written into the legislation that will formalise his job. At present, he has interim status and won’t have those powers until the legislation is passed.
It is not clear yet what sanctions for water officials may entail but The Saturday Paper has confirmed separately that such obstruction would be considered a criminal offence and the failure to co-operate and supply information would be likely to attract financial penalties or jail.
Now involved in drafting the legislation for his position and separate legislation for the government’s planned national integrity commission, Keelty wants both to have substantial teeth, including protections for whistleblowers.
“I’ll make sure they are complementary to each other,” he says.
Theintegrity commission legislation is to be ready by the end of the year.
The former Australian Federal Police commissioner has served for the past year as northern basin commissioner, without the legal authority to compel bureaucrats to provide information.
He has encountered frustrating levels of obstruction, especially from state bureaucracies, and says his newly expanded position must include the power to compel truthful answers.
The unco-operative attitude prompted him to insist on tougher powers in his new role as inspector-general for the entire basin.
“It derives from the lack of response that’s come from the questions I’ve asked from some of the departments,” Keelty told The Saturday Paper. “And there’s no sanction for them … Some people gave me false information, or incomplete information.”
“IF IT’S HARD FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO COMPLY TO COMPLY, THEN IT’S JUST AS EASY FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO CORRUPT THE SYSTEM TO BE CORRUPT.”
Keelty declined to divulge details of alleged obstruction at this stage but hinted they will be included in a December report he is preparing for the federal Water Resources minister, David Littleproud.
Bret Walker, SC, who was the commissioner on South Australia’s Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission in 2018, agrees the new inspector-general should have significant powers.
“Mick Keelty’s new position is one that definitely requires those powers,” Walker told The Saturday Paper.
“Any position which is required in effect to audit administration – and that’s the function Mick has – has to be able to compel information from public servants … The position would be set up to fail if it did not have those usual and necessary powers of compulsion.”
Keelty’s comments come six months after an initial interview with The Saturday Paper in which he revealed concern about the potential for corruption in the water market, including the lack of transparency in political donations.
To date, Keelty has been unable to find evidence of corruption involving the issuing of water licences, but he is not ruling out its existence. The system’s complexity has made it difficult to track connections.
He remains concerned that how – and when – donations to political parties and candidates are reported creates a climate ripe for corruption and fuels suspicion and anxiety.
Keelty’s previous public comments about the risk of corruption drew attention to his work and he has subsequently referred two sets of specific allegations to anti-corruption investigators.
Keelty is also seeking to overhaul and simplify the collection and presentation of data on entitlements to water – particularly how much licence-holders are allowed to take.
He wants to streamline all official information to be presented on one website and smartphone app so users can more easily understand and follow the rules, calling it a “single source of truth”.
At present, it is impossible to accurately calculate the total volume of water being allocated across the basin, meaning licence-holders may believe they are entitled to more water than is actually available. That situation is fuelling the brawling over who or what should have greatest priority.
“In the current environment, given the drought, there is less water available, which means licence-holders are getting less than they did on average in the past,” Keelty says. “Information regarding the number of licences issued, entitlements and the amount of available water for allocation is not aggregated in a single site.”
He said streamlining this would help to moderate licence-holders’ expectations.
Federal bureaucrats from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office confirmed during a senate estimates hearing on Friday last week that the $78.9 million purchase of water entitlements from Eastern Australia Agriculture – a company previously linked to Energy Minister Angus Taylor – had not yielded any water at all, due to drought conditions.
The 2017 purchase allowed the government to fulfil its on-paper obligations to buy back the entitlement to specified volumes of water from licence-holders so water can be returned to the environment.
The Commonwealth environmental water holder (CEWH), Jody Swirepik, told the hearing it could take as long as seven years to receive any water under the EAA entitlement.
Minister Littleproud said this week he would not allow further licence buybacks because they had not worked.
“What we can do is not go near buybacks again,” he said on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday.
“Those things destroy these communities … I’m as popular as the pox in places but I cannot look people in the eye … and say, ‘I’m going to leave you a legacy that’s worse than what’s there now.’”
As public debate escalates over government responses to the drought, Mick Keelty attributes significant problems in the Murray–Darling to the river management system itself.
He is scathing about its complexity and doesn’t want the basin inspector’s position just to add another bureaucratic layer.
Speaking to The Saturday Paper this week, he highlighted the confused and contradictory information basin water users face when trying to determine what they can and can’t do.
He says this fuels inadvertent and possibly deliberate overextraction.
“If it’s hard for people who want to comply to comply, then it’s just as easy for people who want to corrupt the system to be corrupt,” he says.
But because the information and the laws themselves are contradictory, he also wants to see better co-ordination across the basin states of Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and South Australia, in the same way speed limits and road rules were largely standardised.
Keelty says the legal confusion makes authorities reluctant to pursue prosecutions and adds to the difficulty in gathering information.
Illustrating that problem, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) confirmed this week that the Water Act actively prevents it from providing other agencies with satellite information on individuals’ water use.
Responding in writing to a question asked during an October 18 hearing of a senate inquiry into the Murray–Darling’s cross-border management, the bureau said restrictions on what it can “publish” meant it couldn’t pass information to those policing water use.
“‘Publish’ includes passing water information to any third party,” the BOM said, answering the question from Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick.
“So the Bureau of Meteorology is not permitted to pass water information to the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, the CEWH or any of the jurisdictions.”
Patrick suggested on Thursday that this situation should be rectified.
“The MDBA needs to have all the relevant information available at its fingertips if the basin is to be properly managed,” he told The Saturday Paper.
“I understand the need for privacy, but this is public water and there is a need for a level of transparency.”
Keelty confirmed he is also looking at the legislative obstacles to better policing of water use, including in the Water Act.
He is also highly critical of both state and federal officials who have overseen the Murray–Darling system.
Keelty gave damning evidence two weeks ago at the senate inquiry into the management and execution of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said of the river’s management, arguing federal water bureaucrats were more inclined to “prance around Canberra” than try to fix it.
In his upcoming northern basin report, Keelty will recommend overhauling the tangle of overlapping laws and government websites related to the Murray–Darling.
To make his point,he tabled documents in the senate inquiry listing 27 separate state and federal agencies and bodies dealing with aspects of basin management, 67 pieces of legislation and 13 audits or reviews.
An experiment his office conducted involving accessing the various relevant agency websites and asking a series of standard questions – including “What are my entitlements?” and “How much water can I take today?”– elicited thousands of differing responses.
Keelty says the Commonwealth government doesn’t make it easy for the states to manage the river and that bureaucratic practices delay action.
“One of the recommendations I am making is that the Commonwealth department adopt a more enabling culture,” Keelty told the inquiry.
“[That’s] because the rubber doesn’t hit the road in the Commonwealth. The rubber hits the road in the states. Rather than hold a purse of money and prance around Canberra saying, ‘You’ve got to jump through these hoops to get to it’, go out and facilitate how these things happen.”
The former police chief, who has now employed fellow former AFP officer Ramzi Jabbour as his deputy, said federal officials should reduce the time between ministers announcing a water infrastructure project and when it is funded and begins.
“There is a real bureaucracy operating and it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “It’s building on itself rather than delivering the outcome.”
In his committee evidence, Keelty said it was not surprising farmers, irrigators and other water users struggled to comply with the law, suggesting the system encouraged people not to bother trying.
The difficulty in prosecuting offenders cultivated a sense of impunity.
“If you have policies that are so complex – and if you have a national asset such as the Murray–Darling Basin divided up on jurisdictional lines, and if you break those jurisdictional lines into departments, subdepartments, sublegislation and subpolicies – it is counterintuitive to having good compliance,” Keelty told the inquiry.
He said he wanted the Commonwealth to “develop an enabling culture and make things happen”.
“The processes that people are going through are so laborious,” he said. “In my view, some of them are unnecessary. You need good governance – I understand that – but you don’t have to have a bureaucratic process to deliver it. The private sector does it every other day.”
Keelty told The Saturday Paper his December report for Minister Littleproud will be in five parts.
He will examine the policy settings – including the complexity of that web of current policies – and the communication and co-ordination problems that have seen “releases from dams where water went to places it shouldn’t have gone”.
Farmers, graziers, irrigators and other producers in the southern basin have been enraged and bewildered at the timing of releases in recent years from upstream dams and from the Menindee Lakes in NSW.
The releases designed to send water to users downstream have instead seen dramatic overflow flooding in the narrowest parts of the river, including around Victoria’s Barmah Choke, effectively wasting water. In some cases, it is also alleged to have damaged the environment.
Keelty says blame should not rest solely with the Murray–Darling Basin Authority. He singles out the federal–state Basin Officials Committee for criticism, too.
Keelty says his report will examine historical decision-making that he argues doesn’t withstand contemporary scrutiny. This includes political links to the issuing of water licences, especially involving the NSW Nationals. While he stipulates that this was within the law at the time, he emphasises it may not meet the standard of public expectations today.
The report will devote a section to the rights of Indigenous communities in the basin, which Keelty says have “really been left behind” and deserve far greater consideration.
Its final section will examine the environment’s need for water.
“Access to the water must include the environment and it should not be left last on the list,” Keelty says.
He told the senate committee there were “lots of issues” that can’t be addressed overnight.
“This won’t be the last drought. The drought has brought everything here into sharp focus. But people are not thinking long term about this. We have to think about the legacy that we leave, as a generation, to the generations behind.”
Many water scientists and other basin experts echo Keelty’s concerns.
Australian National University hydrologists Professors Quentin Grafton and John Williams aired their concerns last week in a paper published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development.
The paper on basin “rent-seeking behaviour and regulatory capture” – the pursuit of preferential treatment or financial gain and decision-making that favours particular interests – highlights what the scientists say is the failure of water programs to meet stated environmental objectives and obtain value for money.
“Rent-seeking behaviour and regulatory capture have affected public decisions with respect to both one-on-one targeted purchases of water entitlements and irrigation infrastructure subsidies in the MDB,” their paper says.
Williams told The Saturday Paper that the 2014 abolition of the 10-year-old National Water Commission exacerbated problems.
“We took away the cop on the chop and we took away the mechanism to have that conversation with the states,” he said.
He also endorsed Keelty’s new role.
“I’m just hopeful he can keep enough independence and not be shut down when he lifts the rug,” Williams said.
Another expert, The Australia Institute’s water researcher Maryanne Slattery, remains concerned about politicisation.
“I think that both sides of politics … are really invested in making sure that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan continues in its current form and aren’t willing to actually have a look at what’s gone wrong with that plan,” she told Q&A on Monday.
On the drought-focused episode of the program, Minister Littleproud defended both the government’s management of the basin and its broader drought assistance. He insisted no farmer would be cut off when the Farm Household Allowance reached its four-year limit, saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison had promised as much in parliament last week.
“They will still get a supplementary payment,” Littleproud said in response to shadow Agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon. “We’re not taking the money out of their pocket … You heard it. It’s in Hansard. The prime minister made it clear that … no one will come off these payments. We will continue to make the supplementary payments up until June next year and … in May next year we’ll have to make another decision if it hasn’t rained.”
He clarified later that the four-year limit would be enforced but that farmers would then be eligible for the supplementary payment, which would be extended if necessary.
Littleproud said Keelty’s role in the Murray–Darling Basin was to bring “integrity” to water management.
Keelty told senators at the committee hearing: “I’m an honest broker in this. I am a newcomer. If I see things that need fixing, I call them out.”
Soon, he will also be brandishing a big stick.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as “Former AFP chief eyes water officials”. Subscribe here.