Fears Labor win leaves $5.4 billion Hells Gates Dam dead in the water

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The future of the Hells Gates Dam in north Queensland is under a cloud with the new Labor government set to delay the $5.4 billion project in favour of further consultation.

The Coalition made the 2,100 gigalitre dam one of its hallmark election commitments during the 2022 campaign, promising to transform 60,000ha of dry cattle country west of Townsville into an irrigated food bowl.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce spearheaded the funding promise ahead of the delivery of a detailed business case, expected in June.

It prompted concern from local irrigators and water policy experts that the dam could produce the most expensive water in Australia.

An image of Barnaby Joyce on the left, Susan McDonald on the right.An image of Barnaby Joyce on the left, Susan McDonald on the right.
Barnaby Joyce led a push to fund the Hells Gates Dam in north Queensland before the election. Senator Susan McDonald says Labor should honour the previous government’s committment. (ABC News)

Labor to ‘ensure proper consultation’

Nationals senator for Queensland Susan McDonald said she feared the Hells Gates Dam and Urannah Dam would not come to fruition under Labor.

“I have not had any reassurance from Labor that they intend to honour those commitments,” the former special envoy for northern Australia said.

Labor said in its budget costings, revealed before the election, it would delay Hells Gates by a year to “ensure proper consultation”.

It would then drip feed $450 million into the project between 2023–26, beginning with $50m in 2023-24.

“The business case has been all but finalised, Labor has been briefed on it as well as the previous government.”

Federal funding questioned

But that approach has been dismissed by water policy expert Stuart Khan, from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW.

He said Hells Gates was at least three to four years away from being “shovel-ready”.

a map showing the Hells Gates Dam would be built west of Townsville and north of Charters Towersa map showing the Hells Gates Dam would be built west of Townsville and north of Charters Towers
A map ABC TV created based on Townsville Enterprise information, showing the site of the proposed Hells Gates Dam, uploaded May 2022(ABC News)

Professor Khan was a member of the federal government’s National Water Grid Advisory Body before it was disbanded in March 2022, 18 months before its expected expiration, without having scrutinised the Hells Gates Dam funding commitment.

“There’s a constitutional question around the Commonwealth government coming in and basically telling the state government how to manage water,” Professor Khan said.

He said the detailed business case which outlined the potential economic risk and return of Hells Gates needed to be properly scrutinised by the state government.

a man sitting at a computera man sitting at a computer
Water expert Stuart Khan says the federal government’s commitment to funding the Hells Gates Dam was an “unconstitutional” overreach. (ABC News: Simon Amery)

“Normally, major water infrastructure like this would be an initiative of the state … and then the state might apply to the Commonwealth government for some assistance for the plan,” Professor Khan said.

“So everything is a bit upside down in this case where you’ve got the Commonwealth government coming in and saying the state just needs to rubber stamp it.”

The Queensland state government has remained silent on whether or not it supported the Hells Gates Dam campaign.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Kennedy MP Bob Katter said the previous government’s vision was too small to irrigate north-west Queensland even though it secured $5.4 billion for his electorate.

“If you attempt to proceed with that proposal, you destroy the dreams of the Australian people of irrigating inland Australia,” he said.

An old man holds his glasses in front of a younger man and a port. An old man holds his glasses in front of a younger man and a port.
Kennedy MP Bob Katter wants Labor to revise the Hells Gates Dam to align more closely with the decades-old Bradfield Scheme. (Jade Toomey ABC News)

Mr Katter said he would use his power on parliament’s crossbench to lobby the new Labor government to build a bigger Hells Gates project more in line with the decades old Bradfield Scheme model.

“I will be very, very angry indeed if I haven’t got a meeting in the next two and a half weeks with the Prime Minister or the Minister he designates to do this, and I don’t get absolutely assurances that they’ll proceed to build the dam to 390 or 395 metres [high].”

Water infrastructure a priority 

Just south of Townsville in the north Queensland seat of Dawson, the LNP’s newly elected MP Andrew Willcox said water infrastructure would be his priority in opposition.

“I really want to make sure that we get the Urannah Dam across the line, I think that’s a game changer for the whole area,” he said.

“The Labor Party has said that they’ll support that, providing it stacks up, and it does stack up.”

He said his party wanted to make sure Urannah Dam was built because it would open up a lot of agriculture and provide water for mining.

The ABC has approached the local Labor Party and Townsville Enterprise, which is preparing the business case, for comment.