May 23, 2019

Australia: ‘Not my job’: Barnaby Joyce angrily rejects criticism over controversial water buyback [links to Cayman Islands]

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By Nicole Hasam From The Sydney Morning Herald

Former water minister signed off on a controversial water buyback deal without questioning key details, including links to the Cayman Islands, because it was “not my job” to know who would benefit from the decision, he says.

In an explosive interview on ABC Radio Monday night, Mr Joyce angrily dismissed questions over a $79 million water purchase made by the government in 2017, which he approved, describing criticism of the deal as “horse crap”.

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Former agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce says he has nothing to hide over a controversial $80 million water purchase.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also defended the deal as the result of a “transparent” process.

The Morrison government and its bureaucrats are under heavy scrutiny over the purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture. Such deals are a central feature of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which seeks to recover water from irrigators and return it to the environment.

Speaking on Nine’s Today on Tuesday morning, Mr Morrison said Labor had bought water from the same company when last in government.

“These are done under arrangements that were set up by COAG with Labor ministers sitting around the table,” Mr Morrison said

However Labor says its dealings with EAA were the result of an open tender which guaranteed value for money. Labor says it rejected advances by the company to sell water without a competitive tender. The Coalition’s purchase was negotiated privately and some details have not been made public.

Mr Morrison also pointed to a $300 million water buyback struck under Labor with Twynam Agricultural Group, owned at the time by Argentina-based agribusiness magnate John Kahlbetzer. That deal has also been criticised for not returning enough water to the environment.

Mr Joyce and Energy Minister Angus Taylor have been drawn into controversy surrounding the EAA agreement, which has thrust water management to the fore of the federal election campaign.

Network Ten’s The Project last week reported that at the time of the deal, Eastern Australia Agriculture was owned by a parent company, Eastern Australia Irrigation, which is based in the Cayman Islands – a known tax haven.

A controversial water buyback has thrust water management to the fore of the election campaign.
A controversial water buyback has thrust water management to the fore of the election campaign.CREDIT:NICK MOIR

Mr Taylor co-founded Eastern Australia Irrigation and served as a director until he entered Parliament in 2013. Mr Taylor says he did not benefit from the buyback, never had a financial interest in the companies and is no longer associated with them.

Mr Joyce said on Monday he had “zero knowledge” of Mr Taylor’s history with the company.

Mr Joyce said he relied on advice from his department when signing off on the deal, and did not question the price paid or who would benefit.

“If you do not rely on the competent advice from the department, who on Earth are you going to rely on” he said, describing Labor’s criticism as “a load of horse crap”.

Asked whether he knew a company in the Cayman Islands would benefit from his decision, Mr Joyce said such questions were “not my job” and he trusted the department to “do the right thing”.

“I do not negotiate the price, I do not negotiate the vendor … These were the people who were offering water to us to buy,” he said.

“You ask whether they’ve got water to sell, you are not asking what clothes they wear, you don’t ask who they are married to.”

Mr Joyce’s attempts to distance himself from the deal appear to contradict his insistence in 2015 that he, rather than assistant minister Anne Ruston, would “have the lead” on water in government.

“There is not one thing that can go through cabinet without the cabinet minister responsible having the say. I’m actually responsible for it if it goes wrong. Responsibility resides with me,” Mr Joyce said, according to an ABC report.

In November 2015, Queensland Labor’s Minister for State Development, Natural Resources and Mines, Anthony Lynham, urged the Morrison government to buy water entitlements from Eastern Australia Agriculture.

Mr Joyce said unless the Queensland government were “morons” or “asleep”, their proposal suggested to him that the deal was sound.

In relation to the Queensland government proposal, a Labor spokesman said the federal government negotiated with the company and signed off on the price paid for the water, and the deal was “their responsibility”.

Labor has not ruled out holding a royal commission into the basin plan if it wins office. Mr Joyce said he “wouldn’t give a toss” about appearing before such an inquiry because he had not committed a wrong and had simply followed Labor’s “precedent”.

Labor environment spokesman Tony Burke on Monday questioned why the government bought the water from a foreign-based multinational rather than local farmers. He said the Coaliton had questions to answer over the deal.

Critics say the government paid too much for the water and that it will not produce environmental gains.

The department issued a statement on Friday defending the buyback, including the due diligence it carried out. The government says the deal was transparent and documents relating to the purchase have previously been released to the Senate.

However Mr Burke on Monday said the documents were heavily redacted and should be released in full.

In a letter to secretary Daryl Quinlivan, Mr Burke wrote that “given that the department has chosen to insert itself into the public debate in this way, it is not consistent [with] the operation of the public service to provide reference to those documents to make a case in order to defend the minister without then also making those documents public”. The department declined to comment on the request.

Asked on Tuesday why he did not release the unredacted documents if he had “nothing to hide”, Mr Morrison said the process was overseen by the Auditor-General and negotiations conducted “at arms length”.

For more on this story and video go to; https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/not-my-job-barnaby-joyce-angrily-rejects-criticism-over-controversial-water-buyback-20190422-p51g6k.html

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