Australian Conservatives leader and South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi together with a group of cross-party federal MPs have asked the auditor general to urgently investigate $180 million spent on water buybacks last year, amid concerns about whether the government got value for money.
The Guardian newspaper reports, the buybacks of water rights from three large properties as part of the Murray-Darling basin plan proceeded without tender, and took place while Barnaby Joyce was minister for agriculture.
In April 2016 former Minister Joyce declared an end to large-scale water buybacks for the environment. Instead it appeared that the commonwealth negotiated with farmers who approached it wanting to sell.
Now a group of politicians including Senator Bernardi, Labor’s spokesman on environment and water, Tony Burke, the Greens spokeswoman on the Murray-Darling, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, and the three Centre Alliance (formerly the Nick Xenophon Team) MPs have together requested a full audit.
There have been concerns about the buybacks with analysis and reports alleging that the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources - which manages the purchase of water - significantly overpaid vendors for water in the Warrego catchment, at Tandou and in the Condamine-Balonne Valley.
In one buyback - in which the government paid $79 million for water rights from a property, Tandou, owned by Webster Ltd - the documents released to the Senate showed the government had ignored a valuation by the commonwealth’s Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and instead used a private-sector valuation commissioned by the New South Wales government. The government paid nearly double the bureau’s valuation. There are also questions about the reliability of the water rights in the Lower Darling.
In the two other two cases involving the Warrego and the Condamine-Balonne, the government chose to redact all details of the valuations it relied on when it released the information to the Senate.
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