By JOHN DOOLEY

THE ABC’s Four Corners program has produced another highly inflammatory report, alleging that billions of taxpayer’s dollars are being poured into grants handed to irrigators in an attempt to save more water. 

The grants referred to are being made under the Murray-Darling Basin Water Infrastructure Program (MDBWIP), which is providing funding to upgrade water infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Under the scheme, $1.5billion is available from the Water for the Environment Special Account to improve water efficiency and deliver 450 gigalitres of water savings for the environment by 2024.

Water saving projects must be able to demonstrate a neutral or positive social and economic impact for the community. 

Member for Mallee Dr Anne Webster responded to the Four Corners report this week, saying that she has always supported the need for more transparency with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (MDBP). 

“Minister (for Water Resources David) Littleproud is investigating various ways to bring greater transparency to the MDBP, and that is what we all want across all of the water dealings that have gone on, and the way that the MDBP is being managed,” she said.

“I think we need to remember a few things. This was a plan introduced by Labor in 2012, signed by Julia Gillard – this has bipartisan support and the Coalition has had to roll it out and work with it – the alternative is not good.”

Dr Webster agreed that the current plan needed to be reviewed, something she said Minister Littleproud was undertaking.

“Minister Littleproud announced that the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) will be conducting a review of the speculative market, and I believe that is essential,” she said.

“The auditor general is investigating water buybacks that go back years now, which I think is also essential. 

“The alternative to buybacks is what has been introduced, and that means water infrastructure programs which ensures we don’t lose thousands of jobs. 

“The water buyback process, where 1200GL was bought back in the previous years, had seen many jobs lost throughout the Basin, that’s not what we are going to let happen again.”

Dr Webster, INSET, said the current system (MDBWIP) where infrastructure is being introduced into agricultural irrigation areas means that there is greater water efficiency, and that people’s jobs are secure.

“In fact, as was borne out by the Four Corners program, people can actually find ways to invest in land and more irrigation,” she said. “That is not to say that people who own a lot of properties such as Webster, which was raised, have suddenly got access to more water, they don’t – they’re part of a market like everyone else. 

“Some of the smaller farmers, some of whom were interviewed on the program, have been able to invest in their businesses too. It’s a matter of the transparency around all of that, and I think that is really the key to it, and this is going to be addressed.”

The Four Corners program, which aired Monday night, featured testimonies from a cross-section of stakeholders, including lawyers, farmers, water economists, business owners, earth-moving contractors and a former director of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Mary Anne Slattery, who is now senior water researcher at the Australian Institute.

“As a taxpayer, it’s absolutely outrageous and indefensible that Commonwealth funds for an environmental program are being used to fund big new dams to take flows that used to benefit the environment,” Ms Slattery said. 

Another one of the program’s ‘informants’, Griffith Business Chamber’s Paul Pierotti said the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is “a triple bottom line fail.”

“It’s a fail for communities, it’s a fail for the economy and it’s absolutely a fail for the environment,” he said.

Landforming contractor John Kerrigan said that he would characterise the Plan as “pink batts for farmers, or pink batts for earth-movers.” 

“It all had to happen in a short space of time,” he said.

It was also alleged by former Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, David Papps, that taxpayers have had to “fork out a lot more money to get water for the environment than they should have.”

Mr Papps was in charge of returning water to the rivers – bought from farmers under the water infrastructure scheme.

“I certainly had strong concerns that perhaps the volumes of water that were being attributed to the environment were not always as accurate as they should have been, in other words, that the accounting system was lacking transparency and lacking rigour,” he said. 

This was something Richard Beasley, SC Senior Counsel assisting the SA Royal Commission, agreed with when asked how extravagant he thought the scheme was.

“How extravagant is this scheme? Extravagance is one word you could use, I would just call it a rort,” he said.

Four Corners referenced the SA Royal Commission, which this year found that the $4billion spent so far on the water infrastructure scheme was “wasteful and irresponsible.”

Minister Littleproud, INSET, issued a response to the program’s claims: “The Coalition is proud to invest in water efficiency projects, because they return water to the river system, whilst protecting rural jobs and communities, rather than decimating them as water buybacks.”

“It is unfortunate Four Corners did not mention this crucial fact,” he added. “The Coalition uses water efficiency projects instead of water buybacks to recover water because water buybacks mean less farm production, less harvesting and packing jobs in small towns, and less money spent in the local pubs and restaurants.”

Reiterating Dr Webster’s point, Minister Littleproud said water efficiency projects began under the previous Labor Government, after it had bought back nearly 1200GL of water and literally thousands of rural jobs were lost. 

“The Coalition promised before the 2013 election to use water efficiency projects to recover water and we’ve delivered our promise,” he said. “The Plan has so far delivered 2100GL of water back to the river system, with about another 500GL to go. 

“Some 1200GL was recovered through buybacks mostly under Labor, 700GL through water efficiency projects and the balance through State Government programs and gifted water.

“Recovering large parcels of water from a company through water efficiency projects instead of effectively closing dozens of family farms in a small community through water buybacks is arguably much better for those communities and the real families who live in them.”

Minister Littleproud said that if a farmer or company uses other money to plant other crops, or buy other water, that was up to them, as long as all the approvals are met. 

“Australia is a free country. Building a dam does not give a farmer more water entitlement,” he said. “Planting almonds, nuts or any other water intensive crops does not give a farmer more water entitlement.”