Buyback in hot water

By Country News

A senior Morrison Government minister has rejected allegations a controversial $80million water purchase verged on ‘‘corruption’’, amid calls for a major inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale has led calls for a wide-ranging royal commission into the management of the river system, after questions resurfaced about the government buying water from two Queensland properties in 2017.

‘‘It verges on corruption and that’s why we do need to see a full-throated investigation,’’ Senator Di Natale told ABC Radio National on Monday.

But Liberal federal election campaign spokesman Simon Birmingham hit back at the Greens, describing Senator Di Natale’s comments as scurrilous.

‘‘We think a royal commission into allegations that are completely baseless would be a waste of time and money,’’ Senator Birmingham told the ABC.

He said Eastern Australia Agriculture’s, original asking price had been more than $5000/Ml, but the agreed price was closer to $2700/Ml.

‘‘The environmental and water department officials involved in the negotiation clearly drove a bargain to make sure they got an appropriate, competitive market price,’’ Senator Birmingham said.

In August 2017, the Federal Government bought 28.7Gl of water from two Eastern Australia Agriculture-owned properties, Clyde and Kia Ora, in Queensland at a cost of $78.9million.

Eastern Australia Agriculture’s parent company is based in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven.

Senator Di Natale said the Murray-Darling Basin Plan had a history of corruption and mismanagement.

‘‘When you’ve got governments handing out taxpayer money to companies that reside in places like the Cayman Islands, a notorious tax dodge, what we have is a national scandal,’’ he said.

The department has dismissed suggestions the water can’t be used away from the properties, arguing the purchase has significant environmental benefits.

‘‘This water was purchased for an environmental outcome. It was not, as is claimed, the largest purchase ever made,’’ Senator Birmingham said.

Labor’s Jenny McAllister said Barnaby Joyce, who was Nationals leader and water minister at the time of the sale, needed to make it clear how the buyback represented value for money.

‘‘$80 million on a water purchase, not through a tender process, what actually happened?’’ she told Seven’s Sunrise.

Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie said the government had released all documents relating to the purchase to a Senate inquiry into the matter.

‘‘I am pretty confident this is a stock standard procedure,’’ she told Sunrise.