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Everything we know about water buybacks, Barnaby Joyce and Angus Taylor

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Concerns around the management of the Murray-Darling Basin have been heightened by renewed inquiries about recent water buybacks.

The issue came to a head on Monday during an explosive interview with former water minister Barnaby Joyce.

This is everything we know so far.

What is a water buyback?

Water is a valuable commodity in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Farmers and agricultural communities want it to be used for primary production.

Environmental advocates want more of it flowing through the system.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan sets a balance between the two, limiting the volume of water growers can extract from the river.

A water buyback is where the Government ‘buys back’ water entitlements from growers, thereby reducing the amount of water taken from the river. 

What have been the major water buybacks recently?

Both Coalition and Labor governments have undertaken water buybacks since 2008.

In 2008, then-water minister Penny Wong declared an initial $50 million outlay was a “downpayment on the future of the Murray River”.

“It is the first time in the nation’s history that the Commonwealth Government has directly purchased water, so we’re not waiting for agreement from the states to make that water purchase because we understand the river needs it,” she said at the time.

Originally, buybacks were under open tender, where owners would register the price they would be prepared to sell for and the department would choose the offer that provided the best value.

However this led to concerns from communities about job losses.

Since 2015, the department has purchased surface water through direct negotiation with entitlement holders.

Here is a table of recent buybacks (source: Productivity Commission).

Date Area Type Cost
(megalitres, long-term average annual yield)
Average cost
May 2016 Border Rivers (QLD) 0.4 256 1,500
June 2016 Murray (SA) High reliability 8 2,880 2,778
January 2017 Murrumbidgee (NSW) Supplementary 4.5 4,071 1,098
June 2017 Warrego (Qld) Unsupplemented 16.9 10,130 1,668
June 2017 Lower Darling (NSW) High security
General security
78 2,129
August 2017 Condamine-Balonne (Qld) Overland flow 78.9 26,443 2,989

How is Angus Taylor connected?

Eastern Australia Agriculture was the vendor for the August 2017 buybacks.

Angus Taylor, current Minister for Energy, was director and secretary of Eastern Australia Agriculture between mid-2008 and late-2009.

He also lists on his parliamentary profile that he was “co-founder and director, Eastern Australia Irrigation from 2007”.

Eastern Australia Irrigation is a Cayman Islands-headquartered entity which is part of a structure of companies that owns Eastern Australia Agriculture. 

He claims he never had a direct or indirect financial interest in any associated company and ceased all links to the company prior to entering Parliament in 2013.

Why is there so much attention on the 2017 buybacks?

Attention has focused on the 2017 buybacks because of their high price.

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has obtained information about the buybacks through the Senate Estimates processes, and claims it does not explain why a limited tender was needed.

The link to the Cayman Islands, known widely as a place used for companies to minimise tax liabilities, has also raised questions.

“It’s totally unacceptable that the Commonwealth uses taxpayer’s money to transact with companies that are based out of tax havens,” Senator Patrick said.

Were these buybacks effective?

The Murray-Darling Basin is an ecosystem under pressure, and drought has lead to lower inflows. The Menindee fish kill has been the most prominent recent example of the strain.

Under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the Commonwealth has pursued water purchasing after recognised there is only so much water the river can lose while remaining healthy.

It’s difficult to say whether the program of buybacks have been successful, but without it the river — and local communities — may be under even greater pressure.

Whether the limited tender process delivered value for money is also an issue.

The Department of Agriculture issued a statement last week that the 2017 purchase presented a “unique opportunity” to secure almost 30 gigalitres of water in a catchment of strategic importance.

In a report into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the Productivity Commission claimed “integrity of [the department]’s purchasing processes is essential for both ensuring and communicating that purchases represent value for money to the taxpayer”, but that transparency “has not been systematic”.

What was the position of the Queensland Government?

Barnaby Joyce claimed the Queensland Labor Government “recommended” the 2017 buyback to the Commonwealth.

Queensland Natural Resources Minister Anthony Lynham clarified his position in a statement on Tuesday.

He confirmed the Queensland Government originally expressed its support of a potential purchase but that discussion on this approach was discontinued by the Commonwealth in late 2015 and a separate negotiation led to the 2017 buyback.

“The Commonwealth has the clear lead for water recovery under the Basin Plan and is therefore responsible for appropriate due diligence and governance of purchase matters,” he said.

“The Queensland Government was supportive of the purchase because it helped achieve the Basin Plan water recovery targets.” 

What was Barnaby Joyce’s role?

Mr Joyce was the water minister at the time of the 2017 buybacks.

He claims the purchase was “at arm’s length”, and he did not investigate who would benefit under the buyback.

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that Mr Joyce asked to be kept informed by his department about progress of the sale.

But he countered on Tuesday that his role “was never to select a purchaser or to determine a price”.  

What do we still not know?

On Tuesday, Water Minister David Littleproud said he had written to the auditor-general to review all water purchases from 2008 onwards.

This followed a call from Labor’s water spokesperson Tony Burke for more information to be released about the 2017 buyback.

The procurement of strategic water entitlements was already listed as a potential audit for 2018-19.

It is still not clear who was the ultimate beneficiary under the 2017 buybacks — that is, who the investors are within the Cayman Islands company — nor whether the amount paid represented value for money.

Advice for farmers on multi-grazing hybrid brassicas

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Farmers Weekly

Demand for hybrid brassicas reached unprecedented levels in 2018 as livestock farmers sought solutions to forage shortfalls caused by the drought. Bred in New Zealand and first grown in the UK about a decade ago, hybrid brassicas are fast-growing, kale x rape hybrids and offer the flexibility of single or multiple grazing. Germinal GB carried […]

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Welsh diesel storage rules to change in 2020

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Farmers Weekly

Farmers in Wales are being reminded that new laws will come into force next March that will require all diesel tanks to be built or sited to catch potential spills. Pollution regulations were passed into law in 2016 in Wales which set new standards for agriculture fuel oil that brought them into line with existing […]

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Opinion: Brexit uncertainty makes breeding choices tricky

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Farmers Weekly

April is the time of year when I cast my eye over our group of home-bred, two-year-old pedigree Sussex heifers. Which ones to put to the bull and which ones to send to our fattening marsh (and therefore greatly reduce their life expectancy)? But, in such uncertain, Brexit-dominated times, should I retain any heifers for […]

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Farmer Focus: Direct drilling isn’t a cure-all

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Farmers Weekly

As farmers we are sometimes over-defensive of our own particular production systems and blinkered as to the flaws. On my own farm I enthusiastically believe a mixed farming system brings benefits by broadening crop rotations and boosting soil organic matter on our lighter soils, but I tend to overlook that added complexity equals additional costs. […]

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Downpour fills dams, soaks paddocks in drought-hardened far western NSW

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After two years of crippling drought, graziers in far western New South Wales had their prayers answered at the Easter long weekend.

Widespread rain filled dams and soaked paddocks from Bourke to Menindee, with up to 75 millimetres falling in some areas.

Bourke grazier Leanne Davis, whose family has been documenting the dry, welcomed the soaking rain.

“Now we have lovely, fresh water that doesn’t smell anymore!” she said.

Dry conditions have slowed Peter Ponder’s sheep operation to a stand-still over the past two years.

“I’ll be spending the day today with a jigsaw puzzle and a few movies,” said the grazier from Amaroo Station, near Wanaaring.

He said his country is in the worst shape it has ever been.

“Our country is looking desperate,” he said.

With cool weather approaching, Mr Ponder hopes the weekend’s rain will lead to good pasture growth and put an end to his daily routine of hand-feeding his stock.

“This rain has certainly lifted our spirits,” he said.

Most unsealed roads are closed around the township of Wanaaring today after 50mm fell in the district.

But according to local store owner Ben Strong “no-one’s complaining”.

“Last year our total rainfall for the year was 85mm, and in the past 24 hours we have had over 50mm,” he said.

About 75mm fell on Easter Monday at Trilby Station on the Darling River near Louth.

Station owner Liz Murray said there was now more that 5 centimetres of water in the river, which was dry enough to play cricket in just two days ago.

“We’re absolutely ecstatic,” she said.

Mrs Murray and her family have been hand-feeding their Merino sheep for the past 20 months at a cost of $130,000 a month.

“Our next trigger point for selling more sheep was yesterday, so we’re very happy we’ve had this rainfall.”

Guardian donkeys protecting the herd

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A Queensland grazier has turned to donkeys to ward off wild dogs and says, in the past year, he has not lost a calf in any paddocks patrolled by the feisty guardian animals.

Key points guardian donkeys

Key points:

  • Grazier, Ian Sylvester, says running two to three donkeys to small herds of cattle works best
  • He says he hasn’t lost a calf or yearling to wild dogs since running the donkeys with his herd
  • Donkeys are sensitive and need to be treated kindly

Ian Sylvester started with two donkeys and now has 17 running with 120 cattle at Cooran on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

He splits his droughtmaster, red brangus, santa gertrudis and red brahman breeding cows into smaller mobs — each one protected by two to three donkeys.

“When I came here in 2013 we seemed to have a lot of dogs here — you couldn’t go and mow the lawn without the dogs coming to have a look and see what you were doing,” Mr Sylvester said.

“A friend suggested they’d had success out at Muttaburra and Longreach with running donkeys, so we thought we’d try it.”

The donkeys protect the cattle with their teeth and hooves.

The donkeys came from a property where they were run with sheep and cattle.

They are one part of a wider management plan, which includes working with Noosa Shire Council to trap and bait wild dogs.

Two ‘jacks’ size each other up through the fence.

“I can’t put a loss down, in the past 12 months, to a wild dog on this side of the farm,” Mr Sylvester said.

“[The donkeys] travel the path with the cattle and they stick to them very quick and they’re very inquisitive, so they’re not backwards in going up and chasing something.

Mr Sylvester was unsure whether it was the noise of the donkeys or their feistiness that frightened predators off.

“I don’t bring my own working dogs into the yards, but they chase them if they’re down on the flat,” he said.

A Jerusalem donkey and her foal.

Mr Sylvester has lost a calf to wild dogs in a paddock across the road, where donkeys were not running with the cattle.

His lush mountainous farm borders a national park.

“Quite a few of the neighbours, from Traveston across to Kin Kin, have lost calves and even up to yearlings,” he said.

He found that a ratio of several donkeys to a small herd of cattle worked best.

“They’re their mates. If there are too many donkeys they seem to group up by themselves, otherwise they stick with the cattle — two or three with a mob of cattle,” he said.

Ian Sylvester says he hasn’t lost any animals from the mobs his donkeys run with.

How widely are donkeys used?

National wild dog coordinator for the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, Greg Mifsud, said donkeys had been recognised as a viable means of wild dog control.

“Some people take them quite seriously, it often relates back to the size of the property, the type of management they intend on delivering, and also the extent of the wild dog problems.

Greg Mifsud, national wild dog coordinator, says donkeys have been successfully used as part of a management plan.

“We have seen people use them really successfully in some places, but once again it also depends on how serious the owner is in terms of managing the guardian animals.”

Mr Mifsud said the guardian animals had been used well at Traprock, south-west of Toowoomba, but were only as good as the amount of time and effort that was put into them.

“A lot of people tried them out around the Longreach, Winton, Barcaldine region there for a little while, but it’s a bit touch and go and it depends a lot on the individual donkeys involved and how protective their instincts are,” he said.

“Some are very good at protecting livestock, others prefer to hang with themselves and do their own thing.”

Mr Sylvester said that donkeys cost between $900 and $1,000, which he said was the equivalent of one-and-a-half weaners.

Some donkeys are better than others at being a guardian animal.

“If you’re losing 15 to 30 per cent of your income you’ve got to do something,” he said.

“Especially if you’re losing five or six calves to dogs a year.”

Mr Sylvester warned prospective donkey owners that the animals needed to be treated kindly.

He shared a cautionary tale of a man who hit a donkey with a jigger — a handheld device designed to deliver an electric shock.

“The donkey put him in hospital, six months later when he went back to work and walked into the yards he said ‘How are you now, donkey?’ and he had to leave the yards very quickly,” Mr Sylvester said.

“They are very sensitive. If you are cruel to them don’t be surprised, they will get you back.”