“You don’t pay Versace prices for water that you get from The Reject Shop, and that looks like what Barnaby Joyce has done.” 

Search CAAN Website for earlier reports from Michael West and Hamish Macdonald

Labor demands answers on $80 million Murray-Darling Basin water buyback deal





Pressure is mounting on a government agency to provide more answers over an $80 million taxpayer-funded water deal, with Labor demanding documents explaining the purchase be made public.

Key points:

  • The company at the centre of the buybacks was once associated with Energy Minister Angus Taylor
  • In 2017water licences were bought from two Queensland properties owned by that company, for $80m
  • The Agriculture Department has stood by the deal but Labor wants related documents made public


In 2017, when Barnaby Joyce was the water minister, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources bought 28 gigalitres of water from Eastern Australia Agriculture, a company once linked to now-Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

The deal was part of a series of controversial agreements which saw the Federal Government spend $200 million buying environmental water under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

*The buybacks occurred without an open tender process.

*Opposition water spokesman Tony Burke has today written to the department asking it to publish, in full, documents relating to the due diligence and value of the deal.

*Mr Burke is also seeking documents showing the department received advice from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, State Government and Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder on the deal.

The letter follows a statement released by the department at the weekend defending the $80 million water buyback.

EAA is controlled by Eastern Australia Irrigation, which is based in the Cayman Islands.


Mr Taylor, a co-founder and director of Eastern Australia Irrigation, ended his association with the companies before entering Parliament in 2013.

Both he and Mr Joyce deny any involvement, but Mr Burke said the deal raised several questions.

“On the face of it, it looks like, for floodwater that only exists in very rare circumstances, that effectively, have paid very top dollar for it,” Mr Burke said.

*”You don’t pay Versace prices for water that you get from The Reject Shop, and that looks like what Barnaby Joyce has done.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the deal.

“These arrangements were conducted at complete arm’s length from any ministers,” Mr Morrison said.

“The department has appeared before the Senate inquiry and has gone through the process that led them to that price and how it was transacted.”

In its statement on Friday, the department said the purchase “represented a unique opportunity to secure a significant volume of water in a catchment of particular strategic importance to achieving the triple bottom line outcomes of the Murray Darling Basin Plan”.

It also said claims the water could not be used off the property were false.

Mr Burke asked department secretary Daryl Quinlivan to respond by close of business on Tuesday.

The Greens have renewed calls for a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.








THIS issue was not revealed on ABC TV news reports this morning … why not?


DESPITE the lack of water across much of Australia’s regions the Scomo Govt has issued even more Visas to lure foreigners away from the major cities to the regions … as country towns, farms and businesses are folding …



Water and drought continue to hurt NSW regional communities — and they’ve had enough




Jamie Tasker is usually run off his feet at this time of year.

April means harvest time, and as the owner of Tasker’s Garage farm machinery in Deniliquin, in NSW’s Riverina region, there is usually a steady stream of business coming in.

But with zero water allocations for farmers of the area this year, he has been forced to cut back on staff and tighten his purse strings.

“Water is money,” he said.

“Water is farming.”

Water is life.

So it was no surprise that water, and the lack of it, was a major issue at the recent NSW election.

It was particularly evident in regional NSW, with the drought — and the confronting images of dead fish in the state’s far west — creating the perfect storm.

It was a storm felt by the National Party, which saw its vote drop significantly, and former regional water minister Niall Blair, who resigned after claiming personal threats against him and his family.


But the state’s water woes extend beyond the farm gate and its impact on the local environment — water is intimately linked to the strength of regional economies.

Mr Tasker believes that was why the National Party was so heavily bruised in the recent state election, losing support in droves and costing the party key seats.

“The fact is that the farmers have got no water,” he said.

“They simply can’t grow crops. They can’t do anything.”

He said people felt like they were not being heard by the State Government, and that the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers success in the seat of Murray — won by the party’s Helen Dalton from Nationals incumbent Austin Evans — would have been a surprise for some.

Along with Murray, the Shooters party picked up the seat of Barwon and held the seat of Orange on the back of a wave of voter discontent in the bush.

But despite predicting in the run-up it would give next month’s federal election a shake-up, the party confirmed it would only run one candidate on May 18 — Orange councillor Sam Romano in the Nationals-held seat of Calare — because of a lack of money and resources.


Shelley Scoullar is one of many Deniliquin farmers struggling to get by.

Ms Scoullar has only ever wanted to grow rice after learning the craft from her father, but she has been forced to imagine a different future.

Planting rice this year was a tough decision, she said, and as well as planting a smaller crop, it only yielded only a tenth of what would normally be grown.

“We had a family meeting and we said, ‘No, we are not going to do it [plant a crop]’,” she said.

“And then half an hour later we came back and said, ‘You know what, we have to do it, we’re farmers’.”

The business just got by with extra water carried over by an irrigation company to make up for the zero allocation in the area, but even tougher calls were yet to be made.

“We’ve had to put the farm on the market,” she said.

“It has been really difficult because I have really found my niche in life growing rice.”

Another town struggling

Over in Menindee, about 500 kilometres to the north-west, the lack of water has put a dent in tourism and threatened business confidence.

Mavis Pumphrey has been trying to sell her supermarket in the remote community for five years.

Despite her shop running in the black, no one wants to buy it.


The long-term local feared shutting up shop would serve as the death-knell for the community.

“They [potential buyers] have the perception the town is dying because there is no water,” she said.

The National Party received just seven votes at the state election from the booth in Menindee, compared to the more than 100 votes for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Roy Butler, who was elected in the seat of Barwon.

She said governments had to be held accountable.

“I think it was a general rebellion against them [the Nationals] because they haven’t listened to the people in their electorate,” Mrs Pumphrey said.

“They [governments] just need to step back and take a jolly good look at themselves.”

Back in Deniliquin, where multiple shops are boarded up100 people are in the process of losing their jobs at a rice mill after the lack of water impacted the scale of production.


Yvette White is one of the 100.

She said it was frustrating to look at the local river flowing, knowing that policy — and what she called “mismanagement” — prevented its use.

“It seems very obvious that we have water,” she said. “We are out on it every Saturday and it is flowing past us.”

She said the loss of 100 jobs in a town of less than 10,000 would have crippling repercussions.

“Is their [laid off worker] partner a teacher? A nurse? Are they going to move on?” she said.

“Are we going to find ourselves in further difficult circumstances with a lack of nurses again?”

Her family is now faced with the question of whether they can afford to stay.

And the issue has the potential to be echoed when regional voters go to the polls for next month’s federal election.

But Ms Scoullar said while politicians licked their election wounds, industries and communities would continue to suffer.

“It is our key issue, not just for farmers but for the entire community and I think that is what influenced the vote at the state election because people aren’t recognising how important water is.”







IMAGINE the Murdoch media assault on Labor if a Labor Minister were to pull off a like Sting of $80M, and put it in the Caymans …

Barnaby Joyce, Angus Taylor, Australia and the Caribbean

Barnaby Joyce, Angus Taylor, Australia and the Caribbean
More profit in water than cotton. Photo by Marianne Krohn on Unsplash

It is extraordinary that the profit from Barnaby Joyce’s record payment for Australian water rights, an $80 million payment of taxpayers’ money, found its way to a company in the Cayman Islands which had been set up by Angus Taylor, a company at which Taylor had been a director for six years. Report by Michael West.

Australia’s water buy-backs scheme was designed to help drought-stricken farmers and our vital ecosystems, not to deliver a large profit for investors in a Caribbean tax haven.

As the legal threats are swirling, we will carefully detail what we know so far – and what we don’t know – but firstly, we can reveal today:

  • Australian authorities, presumably people working with then Water Minister Barnaby Joyce, dealt directly with the Cayman Islands company, Eastern Australia Irrigation (EAI), to strike the $80 million sale,
  • The Commonwealth Bank was involved as a financier to the Caymans company which made the profit,
  • The Tax Office investigated its Australian subsidiary EAA for tax avoidance structures with parent company EAI which were in place when Angus Taylor was a director of EAI. EAA later settled.
  • Directors of EAI’s Australian subsidiary Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA), which owned the water rights, valued these water rights at half the value at which they were sold in the year before they were sold.


This latest point goes to the view, espoused by a number of analysts, that the water licences were not worth much if anything at all (it was floodwater) and begs the question as to why authorities paid a record price when, the year before the sale, even the vendors valued the rights at half the price paid.


What we don’t know yet is the answer to the $80 million question: who are the shareholders and other beneficiaries who had a stake in the Cayman Islands entity Eastern Australia Irrigation?

There are no allegations of corruption in this story. It is not illegal to set up a Cayman Islands company, or to be a director of a company in the Cayman Islands which later became a beneficiary of a sale of water rights in Australia.

Angus Taylor had stepped down as a director of both entities before the water transaction occurred. Moreover, in response to questions put by Channel Ten’s The Project (disclosure: the author worked with The Project on the story), he said he had no financial interest in either company.

The questions remain, why would anybody set up a Cayman Islands company and act as a director for six years for no financial gain? And, as he was a founder and director, would he be prepared to disclose what he knows about the beneficiaries of the big water deal? We shall get to EAI later.

Embedded video

The Project


The Government’s been buying up water at record prices, leading to millions of dollars flowing to offshore tax havens. But now, two of our top pollies are facing questions over just who is making a fortune off our water.@HamishNews and @MichaelWestBiz bring you this report

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Subsequent to The Project running the story, it was established that Taylor did receive a financial benefit for being a consultant to EAA but the Minister said this did not equate to a “financial interest”.

In any case, neither is it illegal for a government minister, in this event Barnaby Joyce, to pay a record price for something which experts deem to be worthless.

So we are not alleging corruption here, merely saying there is enormous public interest in having the detail come to light.

This is public money, for the sale of a vital public resource, and the protagonists in the story are the stewards of our public money.

What we know

So, let’s wind back for a moment to work out what we do know.

We know that Energy Minister Angus Taylor was a director of Eastern Australia Agriculture from June 2008 until November 2009. He was also company secretary and his name appears on EAA documents after that time.

We also know that Angus Taylor was founder of the Caymans company EAI and acted as a director until 2013 when he stepped down before entering Parliament later that year.

Michael West@MichaelWestBiz

ASIC searches show Angus Taylor was a director and secretary of Eastern Australia Agriculture. Last yr profit $28m. No tax. Sale of water licences $52m. Parent is Eastern Australia Irrigation (Cayman Isles) which appears to have received $14m in interest payments.

View image on Twitter

Jommy Tee – electric HiLux owner@jommy_tee

Confirming Eastern Australia Irrigation is Cayman’s registered

View image on Twitter
378 people are talking about this

Until January this year, the Caymans company, EAI, owned 100 per cent of the shares in the Australian company EAA.

EAA owned the water rights and sold them in 2017 for the record $80 million sum. But it did not keep the proceeds.

We can track, not all, but the bulk of the proceeds making their way to the Caymans. The interesting thing, politically, is that Australian authorities appear to have dealt directly on the water transaction with the Caymans company rather than EAA. And Commonwealth Bank was a financier.

We know nothing about the other shareholders in EAI, the Caymans entity. We only know of one, and that is a British hedge fund, also with tax haven connections (Guernsey) and that is EF Realisations Company (EF).

Realisations abound

This British fund EF had a 9.6 per cent stake in the Caymans entity set up by Angus Taylor, Eastern Australia Irrigation (EAI). We know from statutory filings with the London Stock Exchange that EF told its shareholders in January last year that it had realised a return of 2.4 million British pounds from its investment in EAI.

That’s about $4.5 million for its 9.6 per cent stake which means total distributions for all EAI shareholders would have amounted to roughly $43 million.

The big question is, who are the other shareholders in the Cayman Islands company EAI who benefitted from the payout?

As he was a director of EAI for six years, and founded the company, Angus Taylor would likely know at least some of of the answers to this question.


Now, putting that $43 million return into perspective; the cash that the Australian entity EAA received from the sale of the water rights is about $80 million. We can see in the 2018 accounts for EAA, which are filed with ASIC, that $79 million is booked in the cash-flow statement as proceeds of the sale of water rights.

The cost of the water licences is recorded as $27 million and the profit booked on the sale $52 million. That $43 million, shared with stakeholders of EAI in the Caymans, is the bulk of the $52 million profit on the sale of the water rights.


Again, this is Australian taxpayers’ money which has ended up with shareholders in the Caymans which is why, in the public interest, it is vital that the identities of these shareholders are revealed.

How did the money get to the Caymans?

Foreign companies often give loans to their associated companies in Australia. The interest on the loans goes offshore before tax. There was $15 million in interest on loans to EAA’s Cayman parent company EAI and $30.4 million in convertible note payments. That gets us to $45.4 million, pretty close to the $43 million identified before; the difference may come down to currency.

The release by the British hedge fund makes a startling claim:

“During the summer of 2017, Australian Government authorities approached EAI with an offer to acquire some of its water entitlements.

EAI was able to negotiate the price for the water entitlements to the highest level ever paid, and in August 2017 it completed the largest ever sale of water entitlements in the Murray Darling River Basin.”

Is it not strange that the Government dealt with the Caymans entity, rather than EAA in Australia?

EF goes on to say that the proceeds of the sale were used to pay down EAI debt, for working capital and in part to return capital to shareholders, including EF.

There is more money to come now that the farms, Clyde and Kia Ora, have been sold. At least EAA has, and it continued to own them. That money is likely to have arrived already, delivering more cash to the mystery shareholders of EAI, as in January this year EAI sold its shares in EAA to Canadian investors.

The price of the sale of EAI’s shares in EAA is as yet unknown because the sale only happened three months ago and the EAA financial statements are not signed off until June 30; but the new parent company is now disclosed in ASIC documents as Eastern Australia Cropping.

Which Bank?

Another interesting aspect of the disclosures to the London Stock Exchange by EF Realisation is that Commonwealth Bank is in the mix.

“The implied valuation of the farms is less than the value of the farms used to secure EAI’s loan from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, a valuation point that has been a floor for proceeds in farm sales.”

What is the CBA doing lending money to a company in the Cayman Islands which is the beneficiary of the sale of Australian water licences? Why did CBA lend to the Caymans entity and take a guarantee from the Australian subsidiary rather than lending direct in Australia?

Tax Naughtiness

The Cayman Islands is renowned for company secrecy and tax avoidance. It has a corporate tax rate of zero per cent so no tax will have been paid on the proceeds from the $52 million profit booked by EAA on the sale of the water licences. At least yet.

Further the tax note in EAA’s 2018 accounts shows a profit before tax of $41.766 million (tax at 30 per cent is $12.529 million). Yet the tax is satisfied by accrued losses of $13.971 million, so tax payable is nil.

There is not even a tax entry in the EAA cash-flow statement.

When it comes to tax, EAA has form. According to the EAA annual report for 2012, Angus Taylor was listed as a director of the Caymans Island company EAI during the 2012 financial year.

It appears that while Taylor was a director of EAI, that company had financing arrangements in place with EAA, where he had previously been a director, which involved the avoidance of income tax in Australia. In plain English, a tax avoidance arrangement.

Why pay 8pc interest on your loan to the Caymans when you can pay 12pc?

During December 2016, the Tax Office required Eastern Australia Agriculture to enter into a Settlement Deed to reduce the interest charged by EAI on convertible notes issued by EAA.

The interest charges were required to be reduced from June 2011 when Taylor was still a director of EAI. The total amount of excessive interest charges was $14 million.

This from EAA’s 2016 annual report:

“Forgiveness of interest expense – parent entity

“Following a review by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), the company entered into a Settlement Deed with the ATO on 9 December 2016 and the parent entity agreed to reduce the interest rate on the convertible note from 12 per cent to an average interest rate of 7.97 per cent effective from 29 June 2011, resulting in a forgiveness of interest expense accrued in 2016 and prior years.

The higher the interest rate charged by the parent, the more money flows from Australia to the Caribbean.

In the parlance of the tax fraternity, this practice of charging excessive interest rates, in order to maximise the interest payments out of Australia to a tax haven, is called “debt-loading”.

By 2016, Angus Taylor was no longer a director of EAI. He had stepped down from the board of the Cayman Islands company in 2013, the year he entered Parliament. He was a director however when the financing arrangement was established.

Water licences explode in book value

What did the water licences cost EAA and how did directors of the company value the water rights? Bear in mind that a number of experts are saying the floodwater for which EAA was paid $79 million is worth nothing.

Even though they were selling these rights to the Government, the directors of EAA valued them at half what was paid until the year they were sold. It was truly a bonanza, if earlier directors’ valuations are any guide.

Here are the irregularities:

The water licences were held in EAA’s accounts since March 2008 but the bulk of the uplift in value happens in one year, 2017. That was the year Barnaby Joyce’s department bought the rights for $79 million.

The water licences increase in value by $92 million (157.5 per cent) over the nine years from 2008 to 2017. Of that amount, $21 million (36 per cent) is attributable to the eight-year period 2008 to 2016 and $71 million (121.5 per cent) relates to 2017.

There appears to be a disproportionate increase in the value of the water licences sold to the Commonwealth, licences which are apparently inferior to those retained, that is, floodwater instead of river water.

The fair value of the licences sold increases by $52 million (192 per cent) over the nine years from 2008 to 2017 while the fair value of the licences retained increases by only $40 million (128 per cent).

There also appears to be a disproportionate gain in value for the water licence sold to the Commonwealth for the Clyde property.

The cost of water licences for Kia Ora was more than double that of Clyde. But the sales proceeds for mega-litres sold from Clyde are more than for Kia Ora.

Barnaby Joyce criticised his predecessor in the Water portfolio, Penny Wong, yesterday for excessive water payments. So it is perhaps germane to this story that under former Water minister Penny Wong, the very same water licences were valued at $27 million. Under Barnaby Joyce they were valued at $79 million. That is an uplift.

It is also worthy of note, in terms of who was involved with EAA, that the auditor who signed off on the EAA accounts in 2017 was Steve Bourke of PwC. The self-imposed cancellation arose after ASIC had raised allegations that Mr Bourke did not carry out or perform adequately the duties of an auditor after irregularities involving the audit of the for the failed “tick ‘n flick” company Vocation Ltd. He had signed off on the EAA accounts on November 11 that year.

Legal Threats

We received a legal threat from Mark O’Brien’s law firm last Friday in relation to a tweet about all this. Another journalist, Margo Kingston, also received a threat. It was a retweet of Ronni Salt’s Twitter-thread investigation into the affair which was since dubbed #Watergate on Twitter.

According to Mark O’Brien’s solicitor Paul Svilans, who penned the – missive on behalf of Angus Taylor, which was bannered CONFIDENTIAL, NOT FOR PUBLICATION – the allegations in the tweet were “grossly and indefensibly defamatory of our client”.

The threat from Paul, Mark and Angus was to sue for “damages, aggravated damages and costs”.

We duly thanked Paul and Mark for their letter and published it on Twitter because we didn’t think the tweet was defamatory at all. In fact, it is grossly and defensibly in the public interest.

Moreover, as we reminded the enthusiastic solicitors, there is no legal requirement for the recipient of an unsolicited threat to accept their demands for confidentiality and non-publication.

In any case, the Twitter thread quickly disappeared, leaving just the tweet.


The tweet was accurate. There was nothing defamatory of Angus Taylor. There is nothing wrong with setting up and being a director of a company in the Cayman Islands.

Likewise nothing wrong with being a director of its subsidiary in Australia many years before a deal was done with the Government to sell water licences.

Neither is there anything wrong with being a journalist investigating what happened to the proceeds from this record sale of Australian water licences; especially as there are a number of analysts who say that this was floodwater and therefore not worth very much, if anything, at all.

And there is nothing illegal about being a lawyer buzzing about threatening journalists, however irritating it might be for the journalist to be threatened with the loss of family home by marauding defamation lawyers acting on behalf of a wealthy client in public office, a good deal of whose wealth emanates from taxpayers.

They do it all the time.

The storm on social media which began last week and the brawl between the major parties which has erupted this weekend following coverage in the mainstream media suggests this matter will not be resolved until detailed questions are answered.

The question for Angus Taylor and Barnaby Joyce is not whether they, personally, have any interest in the transaction in question. It is:

Are you or have you been entitled or potentially entitled to any direct or indirect benefit fee or payment (including any dividend, distribution, proceeds, commission or entitlement to any of them) under any arrangement or through any chain of arrangements including under any transaction for acquiring or disposing of any property or any asset or under any earn out or analogous arrangement, under any swap or derivative arrangement, or under any trust or agency by virtue of which you have received or may receive any money or property derived or sourced from any part of the funds received or receivable by Eastern Australian Irrigation Limited, Eastern Australia Agriculture Pty Ltd, Agricultural Managers Limited, or from any person or any entity (whether or not that entity is a government, statutory body or government agency) in connection with the matters described in note 23 to Eastern Australia Agriculture Pty Ltd’s 2018 accounts?

“You” includes Angus Taylor and Barnaby Joyce, your spouses and former spouses, any of their parents, siblings, children, any corporation where they are or were at the relevant time, a director; any trust under which they are or were at the relevant time a beneficiary, potential beneficiary, taker in default of appointment, founder or person with any power to include or exclude any person or entity as a beneficiary or potential beneficiary under any trust.

“Arrangement” includes arrangements, whether or not enforceable in law or in equity in any jurisdiction and any arrangement with or in respect of EF Realisation Company Ltd and Ecofin Global Utilities and Infrastructure Trust Plc, whether arising out or concerning the provision by any of you or receipt by any of you of any money or property to or from EF Realisation Company Ltd and Ecofin Global Utilities and Infrastructure Trust Plc, their directors or any of their related entities.”


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Hamish Investigates: Did the Government Just Waste $80-Million Buying Water?

Water wars – questions are being raised whether due process was followed in an $80-million water licence sale

At a time where water is a scarce commodity for farmers across the country, it’s also become a reason for the rich to get richer.

There’s a trail of money moving across the globe, all entirely legal, from the sale of valuable water licenses. And the questions raised lead us to two senior government figures, being one current and one former government minister.

A water buyback is where the government offers to purchase water entitlements that irrigators use for farming purposes from willing sellers.

Water levels in the Murray Darling Basin, one of our country’s main water source, aren’t enough to sustain irrigation, the environment and our growing usage. So, the government created a scheme to cap how much is taken out and allow for it to be traded.

The government buys back water from farms. But unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be much transparency when it comes to negotiated buybacks. So some questions have been raised in the Senate, such as who got the buybacks, why did they get them, and how much was paid?

One company in question owned two properties in Queensland – Kia Ora and Clyde – and in 2017, sold water licenses back to the government at an unusually high price of around $80 million dollars.

Hamish Macdonald sat down with Professor of Economics Quentin Grafton to discuss the situation.

“This is the only example of a huge amount of money being paid for water that was done without due process,” Professor Grafton says.

Documents show that the company had unsuccessfully attempted to sell water to the government until 2017.

Professor Quentin outlined some questions that should be asked:

  • To what extent was the minister connected to those decisions?
  • Why, against advice at least in one of those purchases, and against departmental advice, did the purchase go ahead anyway?

Some politicians say there simply isn’t enough water to go around – so how is it that some powerful people are actually making hundreds of millions of dollars from it?

To find out more about this investigation, tune into The Project tonight at 6:30

Statement from an Energy Minister spokesperson:

Minister Taylor has never had a direct or indirect financial interest in EAA or any associated company.

Minister Taylor concluded all association with EAA and related companies prior to entering the Parliament.

Minister Taylor had no knowledge of the Federal Government’s water buyback from EAA until after it occurred. He received no benefit from this transaction.

We also received this response from Barnaby Joyce’s office:







WHAT $upport are they getting from the Scomo Government to keep their properties at Bay?  Safe from the foreign clutches?

One of the worst droughts in living memory has been captured in a series of images that will stop you in your tracks.

Epping Farm near Pilliga, NSW, November 2018. Picture: Adam Ferguson
Epping Farm near Pilliga, NSW, November 2018. Picture: Adam Ferguson


Jan and Jack Slack-Smith’s 3300ha property in the Pilliga, northern NSW, has been gripped by drought for years now.

They divested nearly all their cattle in 2013 and have halved their sheep numbers to 3200 to relieve some of the pressure. Here, the hungry sheep are tucking into feed that’s been bought in — at considerable expense — and poured onto long mats.

Jack Slack-Smith. Picture: Adam Ferguson
Jack Slack-Smith. Picture: Adam Ferguson


“We’re always hoping,” says Jack Slack-Smith, a fifth-generation farmer on this land. “We tune in to the weather forecast first thing in the morning, a couple of times during the day, and last thing at night.”

When photographer Adam Ferguson visited late last year, the 65-year-old described it as the most severe drought of his lifetime. Since then, he says, “things have gone from bad to worse. We’ve had only 11.5mm of rain all year.”

Playtime in the Pilliga. Picture: Adam Ferguson
Playtime in the Pilliga. Picture: Adam Ferguson


Kids from local farming families play at the annual Christmas get-together in Come By Chance, a small community in the Pilliga region of NSW.

Looking for shade. Picture: Christian Fletcher
Looking for shade. Picture: Christian Fletcher


The mercury was nudging 48ºC near Renmark, South Australia, in mid-January when photographer Christian Fletcher spotted this mob of emus heading for the only bit of shade in an enormous paddock. “I was worried that the drone might spook them but they weren’t fazed by it at all,” he says. “I think they were so bloody hot, they didn’t give a damn.”

Dogga Dare, White Cliffs, NSW. Picture: Adam Ferguson
Dogga Dare, White Cliffs, NSW. Picture: Adam Ferguson


“Only the goats are thriving,” says Dogga Dare, a Queenslander who last year managed the pub (and stood in as Santa at Christmas) in White Cliffs, NSW. He saw starving ’roos roaming through town, trees dying en masse, local farmers spending all their money on trucking in feed. “You couldn’t meet nicer people,” Dare says, “but jeez they’re doing it tough.”

The Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize exhibition opens at Sydney’s Juniper Hall, Paddington on May 4.










Take a look  …

How we allowed foreign commie mandarins to buy up our national resources is mind-numbing in its ramifications!

NOTE the highlighted passages including …

Chinese foreign ownership is different to other forms [like British foreign ownership] because it is state-based,” Mr Lambert said.

-the Chinese Government has effective control of any Chinese company

-a clear connectivity between their governments and the ownership of that water


Further on the FIRB …

The strategy of foreign investment


Foreign ownership of water entitlements reveals China and US are the biggest investors



ABC Rural



*The Federal Government’s long-awaited foreign ownership of water entitlement register reveals investors from China and the United States have the biggest stake in foreign-owned water entitlements in Australia.

Key points:

  • The majority of foreign-held water entitlements are in the northern part of the Murray-Darling Basin
  • Agriculture Minister David Littleproud says the figures are not alarming
  • The register does not reveal where foreign government investors own entitlements


*The register, compiled by the Australian Tax Office, shows one in 10 water entitlements is foreign-owned at 10.4 per cent. Chinese and US investors each own 1.9 per cent followed by the UK owning 1.1 per cent.

*More than 1,800 gigalitres of foreign-held water entitlements are within the Murray-Darling Basin, which is 9.4 per cent of the total Murray-Darling Basin water entitlement on issue.

*The findings show the majority of foreign-held water entitlements are in the Northern Basin at 21.9 per cent, followed by 5.5 per cent in the Southern Basin.


*But the register does not specify where foreign governments or foreign government investors own water entitlements.

**Much of the public angst about foreign investment is linked to concerns over state-owned enterprises buying Australian water entitlements.

*Tom Rooney, president and group CEO of Australia’s water trading organisation Waterfind said it was alarming to find out one of every 10 water entitlements was now held by foreign entities.

“I think part of the concern is … the unfair advantage, which some of these foreign entities are getting, in terms of the cost of finance and or access to cheap money,” Mr Rooney said.


He said there was an increased interest from foreign firms to buy agricultural and water assets in Australia.

Debate over the impact of foreign-owned water entitlements

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the figures contained in the report provided information to make good decisions on foreign-owned water going forward, but were not alarming. 


What is a water entitlement?

  • Water entitlements are rights to an ongoing share of water within a system. They can be bought and sold by irrigators, companies or investors.
  • They no longer have to be attached to a parcel of land, but often are sold in conjunction with properties especially containing permanent crops like citrus, grapes and nuts.
  • The financial value of a water entitlement is determined by the water market (which operates like any other free market) and is subject to change.
  • How much of your water entitlement you get each season can depend on rainfall, inflows into storages and how much water is already stored.
  • Allocations can increase throughout the year in response to changes in the system.

*”At the moment, there’s a small percentage of water owned by foreign interests and much of that is by one property — Cubbie Station,” Mr Littleproud said.

However, the Conservative Party’s South Australian Senate candidate Rikki Lambert said it was a major concern to see China as one of the major investors in Australian water entitlements.

*”Chinese foreign ownership is different to other forms [like British foreign ownership] because it is state-based,” Mr Lambert said.

*”The Chinese Government has effective control of any [Chinese] company that operates around the world.”


*”It’s strategic because these countries are wanting to shore up their own food security and growing food in another country so they’re not using their own water resources at home.”


Chief executive of the National Irrigators Council Steve Whan said he was not concerned about the report’s findings.

“In the water space, if you are going to have an open market, you’ve got to accept that some level of ownership is going to be foreign,” Mr Whan said.


“We need to remember that having water entitlements is only valuable for you if it is actually used for [a] productive purpose.”

Irrigators concerned

But South Australian winegrape grower Jack Papageorgiou has concerns that the agreement surrounding Australian water entitlements is not mutual between locals trying to make a living and international investors trying to make a profit.


“For someone like me and my fellow growers in all commodities, we have permanent plantings and we’ve got to have security of our permanent plantings otherwise we are putting our livelihood at risk. We can’t accept that.”


Mr Rooney has acknowledged there is the potential for an uneven playing field.


*”One of the concerns that we are getting from our customers is that: how big is that market? Can it be gamed by international investors? And are they operating on an equal playing field when it comes to access to money?” he said.

University of Queensland Professor of Economics John Quiggin agreed that there was a disparity in opportunities on the water market.


But AgForce Queensland farmers CEO Michael Guerin believed the right policies and laws were in place to protect local producers and said investment in the industry should always be welcome.

“Capital, whether it be foreign or local, creates those jobs and creates that economic activity,” Mr Guerin said.

The bigger picture

Professor Quiggin dismissed the government report as a major cause for concern and instead encouraged stakeholders to turn their attention to how much water is being drained from the system, particularly the Murray-Darling Basin.

“The big problem is not who owns the water but the fact that we’re using too much of it all together,” Professor Quiggin said.


Mr Whan believed the bigger issue in times of a water shortage was the transparency of the water market.

“Particularly in the time of drought, there is quite a lot of constraint and the price of water is high.

“It’s not so much whether it’s foreign owned but how the market is working overall and whether or not it is providing enough transparency and information for people to be confident that it is working as it should be,” he said.

But Mr Rooney predicted water security was a serious issue to consider for the future of Australia’s water supply.


The 2016 World Bank report states some regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6 per cent of GDP by 2050 due to water-related impacts on agriculture, health, and incomes.

Mr Rooney said Australia had a very unique and secure water management structure when compared to some other countries.

“We are already seeing now some of those countries experiencing very large water issues and they might be facing cuts in their water supplies by up to 50 to 70 per cent in the next 10 years, and to address their water sustainability issue we are seeing them look at Australia as a water secure nation.”

CAAN:  WT *!!









DID you notice that the Developer and Planning Consultant was implying that unless we have the high immigration of 160,000 (as much as 300,00 p.a.) that there will be no growth! No work for developers?

-the cap to 160,000 happened 2 years ago (Judith Sloan, The Australian)

WHAT of the Whole Cohort of Australians locked out of Home Ownership by the Overseas competition?  Priced out of the market by BLACK MONEY,  and the Millions of foreign buyers?

THERE are also 190,000 People on the Public Housing Waiting List, and more than 116,000 HOMELESS!  ONE would think that would ensure the productivity of the Building Industry?

THAT with less foreign demand they could build quality affordable homes that do not catch on fire or fall down?

FYI … what PM SCOMO fails to mention is that midway through 2018 there were 2.2 MILLION TEMP. VISA HOLDERS in Australia of which 1.6 MILLION are Temp. Visa Workers … that is where the competition for Housing and Jobs arise!


Hamish Macdonald interviews Shadow Minister for Employment Brendan O’Connor … Temporary Work Visas …





60 Minutes: Do we really need 45 million more people calling Australia home?

By Sammi Taylor • 60 Minutes Digital Producer


The great Australian population debate has been reignited this week with experts at loggerheads over just how big Australia should be.

The nation is currently growing at more than twice the rate of America, the United Kingdom, and even China.

Some politicians argue a booming population fuelled by immigration will guarantee our future prosperity.

Australian business icon Dick Smith tells Bartlett he wants a drastically lower number of people entering Australia. (60 Minutes)

‘Growing pains’ airs tonight at 8.30pm on Channel 9 after Married at First Sight. For more on 60 Minutes, visit the official website.

But it’s an argument that’s hard to cop for many everyday Aussies crushed by endless development, congestion and overcrowding.

This week the Morrison government announced a proposed cap of 160,000 new immigrants entering Australia each year to ease pressure on current infrastructure in major cities.

CAAN:  This happened 2 years ago as revealed in a report by Judith Sloane in the Australian;  shared on CAAN!  WHY is the Scomo Government not telling the truth?

The number of annually available places for permanent residency is being reduced by 30,000, down from 190,000 in 2019. But is this enough?

Tonight on 60 Minutes, reporter Liam Bartlett canvasses both sides of the population debate and takes his questions all the way to the top: Federal Minister for Population, MP Alan Tudge.

“Australia can grow, but the question is about how we manage that growth.” (60 Minutes)
The Morrison government plans to introduce new special visas for skilled foreign workers. The visas will force them to live in regional Australia for three years before they can access permanent residency. (60 Minutes)


When asked how big he wants Australia to become, the Minister is adamant.

“Australia can grow, but the question is about how we manage that growth,” he tells 60 Minutes.

But Bartlett questions whether it is sustainable to double Australia’s population; to have more than 45 million people calling this country home in just a few decades time.

Australian business icon Dick Smith tells Bartlett he wants a drastically lower number of people entering Australia. He says we need to slow down in order to keep up.

“We don’t want huge high rises, jammed roads, lack of quality of life,” Smith tells Bartlett.

“Our politicians say we need more infrastructure. Crap.”

The number of annually available places for permanent residency is being reduced by 30,000, down from 190,000 in 2019. But is this enough? (60 Minutes)

But planning consultant Shane Geha says Australia needs to be bigger to be better. He says a city like Sydney should aspire to a population of about 10 million.

CAAN:  It would appear that this planning consultant has a vested interest, doesn’t it?

“We’ve got one of the luckiest countries in the world, and it can be a greater place with more people,” Geha tells Bartlett.

The idea of a growing population and a growing Australia is good for everyone.”

CAAN:  The Berejiklian Govt has been demolishing and redeveloping infrastructure for 8 years;  projects are incomplete and cannot meet the current population demand!

But while Australia’s major cities don’t at the present have the resources or infrastructure to cope with huge increases in population, regional Australia may offer a solution.

The Morrison government plans to introduce new special visas for skilled foreign workers. The visas will force them to live in regional Australia for three years before they can access permanent residency.

CAAN:  The PM fails to tell Constituents that there are currently 1.6 Million Visa Workers in Australia.  Australia is predominantly desert country; with very few rivers crossing this land;  the Murray Darling is drying up!  It is not a land that can carry a big population

It’s a move which Morrison hopes could reinvigorate communities in regional Australia which are suffering from staff shortages or population decreases.

CAAN:  The climate conditions perhaps have led to population decreases in the regions. Visa workers continue to work for farmers.

But in the big cities the questions remain, is there room for everyone? Or is Australia full?

© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2019


IMAGINE if anyone else had starved a community of water by damming a river

Imagine if anyone else had stopped electric power supply to a community

Imagine if anyone else had cut off gas supplies to a community


-Given what was reported why was the fine so modest?

-Why did Water NSW fail to prove the water theft was real and present loss to others?

-Does this bloke and his friends expect everyone to believe the pumping only happened for 3 days and that the faulty meters were malfunctioning for only a short period?

-Given all this thieving was proven and admitted why is it not treated as a criminal offence?



NSW cotton farmer Anthony Barlow fined $190,000 for breaching Water Management Act


Anthony Barlow stands with two others in June 2014.

Anthony Barlow argued the then water minister told him he could pump water.


A northern NSW cotton farmer charged over Water Management Act breaches after an ABC Four Corners report has been fined $190,000 by the Land and Environment Court.


The fine is well below the $742,500 maximum that could have been imposed on Anthony Barlow, who owns the 3,500-hectare Burren Downs, a farm which borders the Barwon River at Mungindi.

Mr Barlow pleaded guilty to pumping water from the Barwon River for two days, during an embargo that was imposed from February to June in 2015 because of a severe water shortage in Broken Hill.

He pumped enough water to fill almost 153 Olympic swimming pools, and according to court documents he was planning a summer cotton crop over two fields.

Meanwhile Broken Hill was warned by authorities it may run out of water, with the Menindee Lakes, which the town relies, on resembling “big sandpits”.

An aerial shot of the Burren Downs dam.

PHOTO An aerial shot of the Burren Downs dam.


During his trial he gave evidence that at a meeting of water users on March 25, 2015, he was told personally by then water minister Kevin Humphries that the ban had been lifted.

In his sentencing, Judge Brian Preston found that after the minister arrived at the meeting he reiterated that “there is currently no embargo on the Barwon-Darling”.

An employee of the Office of Water, who was at the meeting, also made a file note that the minister replied to a water user’s question with: “You’re not listening … there’s no embargo.”

Following the 2017 Four Corners episode, Mr Humphries denied he had told the meeting of irrigators they could access water during the embargo.

A map showing Burren Downs and the Barwon River.

PHOTO A map showing Burren Downs and the Barwon River.



Despite what the prosecution described as “confusion” caused by the minister, Judge Preston ruled Mr Barlow had been recklessly indifferent as to whether the embargo had been lifted.

“He knew that the embargo was imposed by a formal process and needed to be lifted by a similar formal process, but he took no steps to ascertain whether the formal process for lifting the embargo had been carried out.”

Mr Barlow said he accepted responsibility for knowing about the embargo and if he knew it was in place he would not have pumped the water.

However, the judge said the prosecutor, Water NSW, had not established beyond reasonable doubt that the illegal pumping had affected the rights of others or caused harm to the environment.

The total fine of $189,491 also includes penalties for two counts of pumping water while metering equipment was not working properly.

Mr Barlow will also have to pay the costs of the case.

But at the end of last year Barlow pleaded guilty to all three offences and the cases against his parents were dropped.






‘We need our own Elvis’: Former fire chiefs warn Australia is unprepared for bushfire peril

WHY can’t the Scomo Government BOOST the Budget with another $14M to meet the cost of an ELVIS to save lives, homes, and Our National Parks from devastation?


‘We need our own Elvis’: Former fire chiefs warn Australia is unprepared for bushfire peril


Australia’s firefighting capacity will fall short unless it buys its own fleet of water-bombing aircraft rather than borrowing them from overseas because monster blazes burning simultaneously across the globe are becoming the norm, two respected former fire chiefs have warned.

However the federal government says purchasing a national firefighting air fleet would be too expensive and current leasing arrangements are working.

Catastrophic bushfires destroyed homes and devastated parts of Tasmania and Victoria this summer, and the timing of intense winter bushfires in southern NSW last year left experts shocked.

The Erickson air crane, aka Elvis, battles a blaze in Victoria. Two former fire chiefs are concerned such craft will soon be unavailable to Australia.
The Erickson air crane, aka Elvis, battles a blaze in Victoria. Two former fire chiefs are concerned such craft will soon be unavailable to Australia.CREDIT:JASON SOUTH


Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins and former Tasmanian Fire Service chief Mike Brown – who together have 90 years’ firefighting experience – say increasingly overlapping fire seasons in the southern and northern hemispheres, driven by climate change, mean Australia must procure its own fleet of large air tankers and other craft – some possibly operated by the military.


Large water-bombing aircraft such as the “Elvis” air crane helicopter are typically leased from the United States each summer.


However Mr Brown said northern hemisphere locations such as California have begun to suffer year-round fire seasons, and the release of the equipment to Australia in summer cannot be assured.

For example during the destructive 2013-14 bushfire season, Victoria was unable to lease the Elvis helicopter as it was being used overseas.

“It’s become glaringly evident that the [northern and southern hemisphere] fire seasons now overlap, on a regular basis and by quite a margin,” Mr Brown said.

“I think you’ve got your head in the sand if you are not accepting that things are really changing out there with the climate.

“There’s going to be a competing demand for these types of specialist resources, and someone is going to fall short … it’s time we start looking at building up our own capacity.”

Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service fighting a bushfire at Miena in January.
Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service fighting a bushfire at Miena in January.CREDIT:ALEX ELDRIDGE


He said the military’s experience with running aircraft fleets meant it could partner with fire services to operate large air tankers.

It reportedly costs $20,000 a day to keep the Elvis air crane on stand-by and $11,000 a day to operate. Purchased new, the aircraft cost up to $40 million each.

The NSW government last year committed to procuring a large air tanker and two fixed-wing planes, at a cost of $26.3 million. The air tanker will be the first to be permanently stationed in Australia.

Mr Mullins, former Fire and Rescue NSW chief, said the purchase showed officials were worried about leasing such aircraft in future.

He said current and former fire chiefs had canvassed a “horror scenario” of simultaneous fire seasons across Australia, meaning traditional resource-sharing between states was not possible and “everything gets out of hand”.

This summer’s Tasmanian bushfires revealed tensions over how limited aerial firefighting equipment should be used. Environmentalists questioned why large air tankers were not used to fight fires in remote bush areas, arguing that while protecting lives and property was critical, natural World Heritage sites should also be saved.

Mr Mullins said large air tankers were “becoming quite crucial in the new fire environment, and we just haven’t got enough“.

“The time is coming when Australia, federally, needs a fleet of heavy water bombing aircraft. We are about the only country with a bad bushfire problem that doesn’t [have its own fleet],” he said.

A spokeswoman for federal Emergency Management Minister Linda Reynolds said peaks of the northern and southern hemisphere bushfire seasons “will still normally be some months apart” and three-quarters of the 140 specialised aircraft contracted by Australian states remained in the country year-round.

Greg Mullins as NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner.
Greg Mullins as NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner.CREDIT: SUPPLIED


“State and territory experts advise continued leasing of firefighting aircraft is appropriate because of the very high cost of purchasing and maintaining specialist firefighting aircraft,” she said.

“Leasing offers greater flexibility to adjust resourcing levels to forecast risk and to introduce technological advancements.”

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre, of which every state and territory is a member, helps co-ordinate the national bushfire response.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the federal government provides about $15 million a year for the centre to engage local and international water bombing and specialist aircraft for use by fire agencies, and an extra $11 million was committed this season.

He said the centre “has recently submitted a business case to the federal government for increased funding to engage additional water bombing aircraft”.

Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said longer fire seasons across the world can be a “challenge in terms of planning”.

However, conditions in the United States “have not impacted Victoria’s aerial firefighting capability this summer,” he said.



Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.










Since the Darling River ran dry six months ago, Wilcannia’s residents have been left to truck in drinking water. Politicians blame the drought, but locals cite mismanagement and corruption. By Nick Feik.


Wilcannia: The town with no water


Locals walk in protest in Wilcannia, New South Wales, on March 3.



The river stopped flowing through Wilcannia, in north-western New South Wales, in September last year. It’s now just a series of dank green ponds. Signs by the bridge over the Lower Darling warn of harmful algae that “may cause serious harm to humans and animals”. The animals have no choice, though, and the kangaroos are still drinking it, despite the smell.

Wilcannia’s 700 residents, the majority of them Indigenous, only drink water that arrives in boxes on the back of trucks from the desert-dry Broken Hill, 200 kilometres away, or from even further afield.

The town’s community radio station, Wilcannia River Radio, has started collecting and distributing donated water, although it’s nowhere near enough to satisfy demand.

A mother of five said her 10-litre carton was gone within a day. It would likely be another week before she was allocated the next free one. In the meantime, she was buying boxed water.

Some households are spending up to $60 a week on water. Almost everyone in Wilcannia, from the local pharmacist to the healthcare centre receptionist to the shire workers, buys water rather than risk drinking what comes out of the taps. A mother who cannot always afford to buy cartons says she boils the high-salinity tap water and adds cordial so her kids will drink it.


The Central Darling Shire recently switched Wilcannia over to bore supply and says the heavily treated water it pumps to homes is in line with national drinking water guidelines. But there is an understandable mistrust of the town water among locals. An undated sign in the public toilets beside Wilcannia Hospital instructs, on shire letterhead, “Do not drink this water”. It cites the contamination of Wilcannia’s water supply and says it is not fit for human consumption until further notice. Scrawled on the drinking fountain in the main street is a warning: “Drink this water, you are going to die”.

Without water in the river, though, the town is dying anyway. It’s the sixth year in a row that the Darling River hasn’t had a regular flow here, a run of dry years never known in the river’s history. “Give us a chance,” says Barkandji senior elder Kerry “Sissy” King, addressing the politicians she holds responsible. “Come out here and see how you feel about living [with no water]. They’ve taken it from the nation that lives off the river system. Come and sit in the gutter with us.”

State and federal politicians blame the drought. But the drought only started two years ago, not six. For Wilcannia residents this is a man-made disaster, and the lack of water coming down the Darling is a direct result of mismanagement and over-allocation upstream.

“The system is totally broken,” says local grazier Arthur Davies. “Without the Darling, this country out here is finished. Doomed.”

The crisis has united graziers and Indigenous communities in the region, and they agree on how things can be fixed.

The final report of Bret Walker’s Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission, established by the South Australian government, found that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) had acted unlawfully, and proposed a complete overhaul of the system. It found water allocations were driven by politics and a culture of secrecy: a “desire to keep its work and decision-making processes away from proper scrutiny”.

Or, as Brendon Adams of Wilcannia River Radio, put it: “Lies. It’s all lies.”


No rain is forecast for Wilcannia and its surrounds. Even if it rained heavily in the right catchments tomorrow, the water would take three months to make its way down here. The last remaining water in Wilcannia’s weir, really just a dirty pond in the riverbed, will run out in the next two months – at which point the water treatment plant and bore system will be under even more strain, to flush toilets, fill evaporative coolers, keep plants alive, feed animals.

It’s not clear, either, if bore supplies will hold out. There’s no way to tell how much groundwater is accessible and the local boring contractor is busy. It’s likely there will be increasing volumes drawn from below the surface. He is already contracted to sink more than 30 bores in the vicinity of Wilcannia, mainly for the use of local graziers and shire roadworks.

The Darling is Australia’s third longest river, reaching from its intersection with the Murray up to Queensland. Yet it hardly deserves this grand title – from Menindee to Bourke, roughly 800 kilometres, there is no flow at all. Walgett and Brewarrina, on the Barwon, a Darling tributary above Bourke, are also bone dry.

The recent fish kills at Menindee brought national attention to the state of the Lower Darling, yet the situation in nearby Wilcannia is arguably worse. As grazier Arthur Davies notes, “the fish aren’t a problem around here”. They’re long gone.

Today it’s beyond wildest imagination but Wilcannia was once a port town – Australia’s third biggest inland port. In tourism information posted by the Wilcannia bridge, photographs of rowboats and paddle steamers bumping into each other beside the same bridge mock the present moment.

Aboriginal communities have been living along the Barka – as it is known by the Barkandji – for at least 40,000 years. After a period of intense frontier wars, the Barkandji (“people of the river”) were displaced and moved into towns and surrounding stations, then onto reservations.

These early decades of colonialism also brought the first acts of environmental vandalism. To ease the way for riverboat traffic, rock bars that had existed for millennia – which also served as weirs to regulate water levels through times of both flood and drought – were blasted out, along with ancient fish traps and the Barkandji sacred site where the rainbow serpent lives.

In the mid-1990s, a national market for water was established. The implications for Indigenous people were profound. Having not owned land or farms they were excluded from any entitlements to tradeable water rights, and the consequent wealth-generating process.

By this time, experts were already warning of over-allocation throughout the basin, and caps were imposed on water extraction for the first time. The Millennium Drought, from 2001 to 2009, in its extremity, prompted the 2007 Water Act. Widely admired, the act centred around a commitment to protecting the basin using the best available science – one that placed the environment above political or commercial interests.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was intended to deliver on the principles of the Water Act. Instead its new “water-sharing” arrangements became a free-for-all. Wilcannia and other local populations were essentially unrepresented in basin plan negotiations, as the Barkandji native title claim was yet to be recognised.

Meanwhile, lobbyists courted politicians from across the spectrum for new and larger allocations and sought to minimise environmental ones.

In the north, the cotton-growing corporations were wildly successful and used their generous allocations to expand farms, buy larger pumps, and increase off-river water storages. The likes of Webster Farms and Darling Farms and the foreign owners of Cubbie Station established operations that were never going to be environmentally sustainable. They forged on anyway.

Cut to 2019, and too much water has been taken for irrigation upstream, not enough  left to flow down the Darling River. It’s been a collective act of bastardry, if not outright corruption. An environmental catastrophe.


Every pernicious effect of colonialism has combined in Wilcannia. First, it was the seizure of the land, then the banning of culture and destruction of environment, the lack of representation, and now, finally, the water. “We’re already lost,” says Sissy King. “How much more lost can we be?”

It’s hard to dispute the words of anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, that colonialism is a structure, not an event.

The cost of living in Wilcannia today – both practical and metaphorical – is exacerbated by the water crisis, only adding to its dysfunction. The local economy is in a state of collapse and unemployment is high. Most shops are shuttered, even the ones that are open. Fresh fruit and vegetables are rare and expensive in the single small supermarket, and basics such as pasta cost two to three times normal prices.

Social housing is dangerously overcrowded – an issue that requires an investigation of its own – and crime rates, particularly domestic violence, are high. Health risks are rife, as are substance and alcohol abuse. Life expectancy is devastatingly low – at last count, 37 years for an Aboriginal male. And there is little to do: this year the locals won’t even be able to cheer on their rugby teams at home games as the ground is too dry to play on and there’ll be no water to spare.

None of these problems will be solved by the local council – because there is none. It was dismissed and went into administration in 2014, after the shire was declared bankrupt. The town’s current administrators, who are toiling just to keep the lights on, were appointed by the state government. New elections aren’t expected until September 2020. Until then, residents are without local representation.

Yet in this tight-knit community people are working hard to survive, and believe the longstanding problems are not insurmountable. “We want to have a good feeling in our hearts, not one of being denied,” says Barkandji elder “Pop” Cyril Hunter. “We want to feel like people care.”


The 2012 Murray Darling Basin Plan had a budget of $13 billion over 12 years. This money was to fund the return of the necessary water, as legislated, to keep the system in environmental balance – mainly through the purchasing of allocations from willing farmers and irrigators. As of 2019, more than $8 billion has been spent on the water buybacks and subsidies for infrastructure investment. Again, mainly for the benefit of irrigators, and in the name of “water efficiency”.

The net result, according to the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an independent body, is that “environmental flow targets set by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, which are required to be met to produce environmental improvements, have failed to be achieved”. Its February 2019 report found, furthermore, that “instead of an increase there has actually been no improvement or even a decline in water flows since the implementation of the Basin Plan”.

These observations match those of Wilcannia residents and regional graziers. They say the Darling hasn’t flowed regularly since the effects of the basin plan hit the river system. Wilcannia locals have seen droughts before, but every adult in town knows the river kept flowing through previous spells.

An Australian Academy of Science report on the Menindee fish kills found “there is not enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic decline of condition through dry periods”.  Based on observed data from gauges at Brewarrina, Bourke and Wilcannia since 1960, the report found that diversions have reduced annual flow volumes in the Darling River by about half.

Federal water minister David Littleproud responded to the report by first calling it political rather than scientific, before trotting out the now-common defence of the cotton and irrigation industries: blame the drought. He then drew attention to the small amounts of water these groups had drawn out of the system in the past year compared to previous years, relative to total volumes in the system.

Irrigators are able to draw out allowances in whichever year they choose, in years when the water price is low for example, then store the water behind their ever-larger weirs and in private dams. They have been given access to high, medium and low flows.

Even as Littleproud issued his statement, irrigators in the northern basin were running sprinkler systems across thousands of acres of cotton.

No one in Wilcannia believes the drought is primarily responsible for their situation. “The river used to run through droughts – now it doesn’t,” said Cyril Hunter. “The government made this drought,” said Brendon Adams, motioning towards the dry river bed. Many in Wilcannia also pointed to the age of the fish killed at Menindee as proof they survived the Millennium Drought. Some were up to 70 years old.


Coming to grips with the Murray–Darling system is disorienting. The language of water management is not designed to be straightforward: extractions, buybacks and return flows, sustainable and baseline diversion limits, classes of pumps and water licences, gigalitres, megalitres, billions of litres. And that’s before we even get to the overlapping responsibilities of the different governments, various acts, water-sharing plans and management authorities.

As Professor Sue Jackson, a geographer and water expert at Griffith University, explains it: “Water flows to power.”

The MDBA maintains that its efforts in the past six years have led to the recovery of more than 2100 gigalitres for the system. But the actual water is nowhere to be seen, in the northern basin rivers at least. Compliance measures have been notoriously lax, methods of gauging water returns basically untested, water theft common. Perhaps strangest of all, by the MDBA’s own admission up to 50 per cent of surface water extractions in the northern basin are unmetered. It has been described as an honesty box system, which is reliant upon corporations that are trying to make money.

Each year, the MDBA and state water agencies produce reports that run to thousands of pages, but they lack information in key areas. To read through them is to face the question of whether their function is not to manage the fair sharing of water but to provide cover for the outrage that is occurring.

State governments, meanwhile, are still running water-sharing regimes based on the interim arrangements put together in 2012-13. Due to regulatory and bureaucratic intransigence, the states’ updated water-resource plans aren’t due to be implemented until July this year at the earliest. Even so, the NSW government is running behind in its preparations. This means that NSW is still allocating water according to arrangements that take no account of either the subsequent draining of parts of the river system, its changed environmental state or the emergency needs of communities along the river. Nor do they take into account the successful 2015 native title claim of the Barkandji, covering 400 kilometres of the Lower Darling including water rights, which remain entirely theoretical.

The only significant reassessment of the original basin plan was initiated in 2016 under then water minister Barnaby Joyce. To the horror of scientists and environmentalists, the northern basin review found that even less water would be returned to the Darling. The recovery target for the northern basin was reduced from 450 gigalitres to 320 gigalitres a year in an amendment to the Water Act. The government would spend even more on “efficiency measures”, including more funds for irrigators. They are completely untested and, in many cases, speculative. A senate committee stated at the time that the MDBA had determined “the same environmental benefits could be achieved without having to use as much water”.

Joyce had a more straight-talking explanation of the changes he oversaw. As reported by the ABC, he told a gathering in Shepparton, in northern Victoria, that he had given water back to agriculture through the plan so the “greenies were not running the show”.

“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you,” he told irrigators.

The river’s native title owners and other Aboriginal communities were invited to respond to the review, but it was consultation in name only. The MDBA subsequently reported, “an overwhelming number of submissions from Aboriginal people stated that the changes proposed to the Basin Plan are not supported by Aboriginal people”. Nevertheless, their views were overridden. A benefit package was developed to get the amendment through – a series of compensatory measures sometimes referred to locally in Wilcannia as “shut-up money”.

Obviously not all, or even most, farmers in the northern basin are thriving, but the deck remains stacked in their favour. While big irrigators are paid millions in water buybacks, and subsidised to upgrade their pipes, weirs and farming methods, Wilcannia residents are buying their own water because their river is dry. As Sissy King puts it, “Why should they be given money for what they stole from us?”


For the Barkandji, the river is more than a physical body of water or economic lifeline. As Cyril Hunter explains, “Water is our life, our culture. It’s our bloodline, that old river.” Sitting on a verandah by the river, he tells of the relationship between Barkandji people and the sacred aspects in the river; how the world is explained using the stories of the river; how traditional hunting of animals and fish, and the custodianship of the plants and trees, is based on a river that flows.

Culture isn’t something that can be drawn from an emergency bore via a chemical treatment facility.

Wilcannia means “a gap in the bank where the flood waters escape”. Hunter hasn’t seen it flood in years and, pointing to some kids playing nearby, notes that they’ve never seen it flow properly. He tells of how, when he was a child, his elders taught him to hunt and fish, what plants and fruits to collect and when, as well as the associated stories. The local ecology is now so disrupted that it has become impossible to pass on that knowledge.

The consensus in Wilcannia is that a solution to the Darling water problem is still possible. Rainfall averages across the basin have barely moved in the past century, so while increasing temperatures are a factor, fixing the immediate crisis doesn’t rest on hand-wringing about the drought. It means reducing entitlements for irrigation, increasing flows for rivers and wetlands and prioritising the needs of river communities who depend on it for basic sustenance. Crucially, it means overhauling how the system is managed, starting with the governance of the basin.

Otherwise we can kiss the Lower Darling goodbye, along with the communities living along it.

Standing in the riverbed in Wilcannia, all the government’s claims about “environmental flows” and “sustainable diversion limits” seem like a sick joke. There is no water here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as “The town with no water”. Subscribe here.

Nick Feik 
is the editor of the Monthly.