Controversy has surrounded the 2017 purchase of 29 gigalitres (GL) of overland flow water rights in the Condamine Balonne river system by the Commonwealth from vendor Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA). The high price paid, the low reliability of the rights purchased and the links of EAA to Energy Minister Angus Taylor led to questions around the probity of the purchase, issues that became known in the Australian media as ‘watergate’.
The Commonwealth has repeatedly blocked the release of independent valuations of the EAA water rights. Documents recently released to the Senate show that EAA had offered similar water rights to the Commonwealth multiple times since 2008/09. These offers were rejected for the reason that they were “not value for money”.
All of EAA’s rejected offers of overland flow water were proposed at lower prices than the price negotiated in 2017. There has been very little variability in water prices in the Condamine-Balonne since 2008/09 and the price increase cannot be explained by increased market prices. After a year of controversy, the public seems no closer to knowing why so much was paid for water rights that are likely to bring so little environmental benefit.
A recently released ‘negotiation brief’ for the Condamine Balonne purchase mentions the involvement of Growth Farms Australia, a company Minister Taylor and his family have substantial interests in. The Director of Growth Farms Australia mentioned in the brief says he had consulted to EAA independently of Growth Farms Australia since 2010. He puts the mention of Growth Farms Australia in the negotiations down to error on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
Minister Taylor has divested from Growth Farms Australia, with his current Declaration of Interests now not mentioning the company. It is not clear when this change occurred as it does not appear in formal Notifications of Alterations of Interests.
The full documentation of this transaction should be released unredacted. This would improve public trust in the management of Australia’s water resources.