A senior government minister has rejected allegations a controversial $80 million 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 properties in 2017.
“It verges on corruption and that’s why we do need to see a full-throated investigation,” he told ABC Radio National on Monday.
But Liberal 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 the company’s original asking price had been more than $5000 a megalitre, but the agreed price was closer to $2700 a megalitre.
“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 government bought 28.7 gigalitres of water from two Eastern Australia Agriculture-owned properties, Clyde and Kia Ora, in Queensland at a cost of $78.9 million.
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 water minister at the time, 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.
Independents back inquiry
In a letter released to media on Monday, a dozen independent politicians – including Malcolm Turnbull’s successor Kerryn Phelps and Tony Abbott’s would-be replacement Zali Steggall – have similarly called for a formal investigation into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
“These so-called ‘Watergate’ allegations of misuse of public funds clearly demonstrate the need for the urgent adoption of a comprehensive National Integrity Commission with retrospective powers,” the letter reads.
It was signed by Dr Phelps, who was elected in Wentworth following Mr Turnbull’s ousting, Ms Steggall, who is fighting to win the seat of Warringah and outspoken preacher-turned NSW senate candidate Rod Bower among others.
The independents pledged to try to establish a commission with retrospective powers if they are elected in the May 18 federal election.