The Federal Water Resources Minister has confirmed an audit was started into water efficiency projects by major agribusiness weeks before an ABC investigation alleged there had been no transparency surrounding the work.
- Irrigators reject suggestions their use of taxpayer money for water saving projects is not being audited
- The National Farmers’ Federation has defended the role of big business in agriculture
- There is an ongoing debate about the need for a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan
On Monday night, an ABC Four Corners investigation titled ‘Cash Splash’ questioned the use of $4 billion to improve infrastructure on irrigation farms in exchange for water entitlements.
The report featured Maryanne Slattery, who resigned from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2016 and now works as a water researcher at the Australia Institute.
She alleged there was no government scrutiny of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s irrigation efficiency program, describing how she searched for information on dams built under the initiative but was told it did not exist.
“I was pretty startled by that because I couldn’t believe that a Commonwealth program that was worth billions of dollars would be administered in that way,” she told Four Corners.
“Government does not do any checking of, either at the first point, the estimated saving, or at the last point, the actual saving, so there’s no government checking in that process at all.”
Brett Jones, the CEO of Murrumbidgee Irrigation, who participated in the Four Corners program has rejected that claim.
The CEO of Murrumbidgee Irrigation, Brett Jones, says Commonwealth auditors check every step of taxpayer-funded projects. (ABC: Four Corners)
“Every on-farm project we’ve done and every Murrumbidgee Irrigation project we’ve done is approved by the Commonwealth department,” he said.
“We have regular auditors coming through, every milestone throughout the project. So it’s extensively audited.”
Four Corners focused heavily on the operations of Webster Limited, a big nut and cotton grower in the Murrumbidgee Valley.
Chairman Chris Corrigan said the company welcomed and supported the auditing process.
“First of all you have to establish the criteria under which you’re getting the grant,” he said.
“Secondly those grants are monitored closely throughout the whole process of the exercise and finally the program is audited by the government itself.
“Now, what more scrutiny do you want?”
The Federal Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud has also hit out at the Four Corners claim.
“Water efficiency works are subject to risk-targeted spot audits by the federal Department of Agriculture, which has also had Deloitte carry out a separate audit,” he said.
“The department began the process to audit Webster a few weeks ago. Delivery partners also check infrastructure works.”
Water is an asset that can be bought and sold, Webster chairman says
Websters Limited chairman Chris Corrigan says the company welcomes the auditing process. (ABC)
Four Corners also alleged Webster Limited had received $40 million under the irrigation efficiency program, enabling the major agribusiness to expand its operations.
Mr Corrigan said $22 million of that was profit from the sale of water licences.
“If you sold a house, you wouldn’t count that as a grant would you? You’re actually selling an asset, so it’s completely facetious to argue that’s somehow a grant — it’s the sale of water rights to the government,” he said.
Mr Corrigan also accused Four Corners of a complete lack of understanding of how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan worked.
“The amount of water you can take out of the system has got nothing to do with how many dams you have, or how much land you have,” he said.
“It has to do with what water licences you own and those water licences are granted or bought on the market.
“There’s a limit to the number of those things, so the amount of water that can be taken from the rivers is a fixed amount.
“The highest priority goes to the towns and the people, the second priority goes to the environment and the third, whatever’s left, is allocated in accordance with these licences for irrigation.
“So you can’t be taking out more than the licence you own, I don’t care how many dams you’ve got.”
National Farmers’ Federation Water Taskforce chairman Les Gordon defended Webster Limited and said of the 1,500 projects funded under the scheme only 70 had received more than $1 million.
“Agriculture needs to have those bigger operators because often they’ve got the scale and the capital to introduce the new technologies, the new ways of doing things, so the rest of us can then adapt and adopt them into our practices,” he said.
“It’s all part of that agricultural landscape.”
Mr Littleproud reaffirmed that statement.
“Some 95 per cent of the On Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program projects are worth less than $1 million, with an average project size of $152,000 across the 1,500 projects,” he said.
“These are almost all small projects involving small farmers, not big companies.”
Royal commission calls ‘questionable’
Monday night’s program has reignited calls for a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, but Mr Jones believed it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“We support the review done by the Productivity Commission, which clearly stated the basin plan is working and it’s progressing through,” he said.
“It’s only five to six years into its implementation. We think the basin plan is working.
“We think the direction it’s heading in is the right way and really the further wastage of Australian taxpayers’ money on yet another highly expensive royal commission would probably be questionable at this stage.”
However, the Inland Rivers Network supports a full independent audit of water recovery and expenditure under the current basin plan.
“We think an improvement in the transparency of how the basin plan is being implement is something that the State and Federal Governments should be supportive of,” president Bev Smiles said.
“The way that could occur is with an independent federal basin plan regulator.”
While the Murray-Darling Basin Authority stands by the plan, and those involved in the program dispute the allegations raised, Ms Smiles said an independent audit would find the truth.
“If this large amount of investment that seems to have gone into corporate pockets has not resulted in better outcomes for the environment, we need an audit to give us the facts.”