Littleproud asks ACCC to investigate allegations in the water market

By Rodney Woods

Allegations of investors hoarding millions of litres of water in the Murray-Darling Basin will face scrutiny from the competition watchdog after farmers urged the Federal Government to take action.

Horticulturalists, including the Almond Board of Australia, have written to Water Minister David Littleproud raising concerns non-farming water speculators were driving prices up.

The average price of temporary water, traded on Waterpool, was $555 on September 11, with sellers asking for up to $620 and buyers willing to pay a top of $580.

In response to the allegations, Mr Littleproud asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate the claims as soon as possible.

Mr Littleproud has also asked the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to use its powers to investigate allegations around transparent water price reporting.

"Anyone operating in bad faith has no place in water markets and will not be tolerated by this government or the community," he said.

VFF Water Council chair Richard Anderson said the contents of the letter sent by the Almond Board of Australia were echoed by many in the industry but several of the issues raised could be dealt with at a state level.

"I think that letter is agreed to by a lot of others," he said.

"That rhetoric has been around for a while.

"The thing that sticks out about it is many of the issues are state issues that could be solved by states rather than waiting 18 months for an ACCC report," he said.

Victorian Shadow Water Minister Steph Ryan said urgent action was needed from state and federal governments to create a single transparent trading platform in the southern basin.

"Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville has said there’s 'no real evidence' that competition from speculators and traders is pushing up water prices, but in 2017-18, 21 per cent of Victorian allocation was purchased by accounts not linked to land or irrigation, compared with five per cent in 2014-15," she said.

"The Andrews Labor Government must take greater action to place stronger obligations on water traders to ensure transactions are conducted fairly and with transparency."

Australian Water Brokers Association president Ben Williams said his association implored the Almond Board of Australia to provide any evidence of unconscionable conduct by water brokers immediately to the AWBA and the ACCC along with other relevant authorities.

State government ministers across the river system have been told by Mr Littleproud to speed up their work on improving the accuracy and transparency of water prices on state trade registers.

Labor's water spokeswoman Terri Butler said farmers were being forced to compete with speculators and corporate water giants for much-needed water.

She criticised the government for inaction on the Murray-Darling Basin during the past six years and hiding behind the ACCC.

"Water is not just another commodity," she said.

"It's one of our most precious resources, and that requires a strong focus on what is in the national interest, including in the interests of the environment and the national economy."

Mr Littleproud has requested the ACCC step in and use its powers of prosecution if it finds evidence Commonwealth laws have been breached.

The watchdog will refer matters to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission if it finds breaches of the Corporations Act.