News National Labor wants a judicial inquiry into water buybacks – with one caveat

Labor wants a judicial inquiry into water buybacks – with one caveat

Barnaby Joyce (left) address a community drought forum in Tamworth, with Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, in Tamworth on Tuesday. Photo: AAP
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Labor will back a judicial inquiry into Barnaby Joyce’s $80 million water buyback deal, but wants to limit the investigation to exclude the Rudd-Gillard years.

As questions continued to mount over an $80 million purchase of water licences from a Queensland farm by the Commonwealth two years ago, the Morrison government has backed an investigation by the national audit office.

But the Labor Party said that didn’t go far enough and after the Morrison government refused to provide more documents by close of business on Tuesday, the opposition environment minister Tony Burke joined the Greens and independents in calling for an inquiry.

“Scott Morrison is trying to cover up his government’s incompetence, chaos and potential misconduct,” Mr Burke said.

‘”This is not acceptable. It is now clear that there needs to be an independent inquiry into the Eastern Australia Agriculture scandal, with coercive powers so that Australians can get the truth.”

Speaking on ABC radio he confirmed that the terms of reference for the inquiry would be limited to the Department of Agriculture’s $80 million deal with Eastern Australian Agriculture when Barnaby Joyce was the minister.

“There is a transaction here for $80 million that does not make sense,” Mr Burke said.

“We don’t see a need, based on what’s there publicly at the moment, for example to be inquiring on what happened when (Liberals) Simon Birmingham was the minister, what happened when Bob Baldwin had responsibility or more recently when David Littleproud was the minister.

“There is a manner of operating here which happened when Barnaby Joyce was the minister for water, which he made a condition of the Turnbull government being able to exist at all – that the National Party had to have the water portfolio.”

Water Minister David Littleproud has written to the Auditor-General to ask him to examine all water purchases in the Murray-Darling basin in the past decade.

The decision is designed to repel calls for a royal commission into the $80 million sale of water licences during former Mr Joyce’s tenure.

Barnaby Joyce in his time as Federal Agriculture Minister. Photo: AAP

It is also designed to draw Labor into the controversy, because it will capture the period when Labor was also involved with water buybacks during the Rudd-Gillard government.

“To pre-empt the Auditor-General’s review would be nothing more than a political stunt,” Mr Littleproud said.

Speaking in Tamworth on Tuesday, Mr Joyce appeared for the first time since a testy interview on the ABC’s Radio National on Monday, where he described critics of the $80 million deal as peddling “absolute horse poo”.

“I had confidence that what they had done had been a diligent and forensic process and, on their advice, we went forward,” Mr Joyce said.

Mr Joyce maintains that he had no idea that the company involved in the purchase, Eastern Australian Agriculture, had previous links to Liberal frontbencher Angus Taylor.

Mr Taylor has confirmed he exited the company before entering Parliament and had no involvement in the sale.

Liberal Bill Heffernan’s warning

Former senator Bill Heffernan told The New Daily he did not believe water licences should have ever been issued to the two Queensland farms – Clyde and Kia Ora – at the centre of the latest controversy.

“The chooks are coming home to roost,” Mr Heffernan said.

His principle objection is that the water involves overland flows – water that depends on rainfall and flooding.

heffernan murray darling water
Barnaby Joyce and Bill Heffernan together in the Senate. Photo: AAP

“Where do you think the water is stored?” he asked.

“They say, ‘Oh Bill, it would be in the various dams’. I said ‘No, it’s not’.

“It’s in the clouds. It doesn’t exist. So how can you sell a licence?”

He added: “There’s been a series of blunders, because of the lack of dirt under the fingernails by various ministers.”

“It’s going to take an enormous effort to get this right.

“There are people who have bought the licences with goodwill and hard cash which, in some instances, is not going to work out.

“They’ve got a calamity coming.”