Australia

Joyce 'doesn't care' about inquiry into $80 million water deal, as auditor-general to investigate

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Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce says he has "absolutely nothing to hide" over a water purchase completed when he was water minister, as the auditor-general plans to investigate.

Barnaby Joyce says he doesn't care if a royal commission investigates a controversial $80 million water purchase made when he was water minister because he is "absolutely confident" in his position.

"So go right ahead, knock yourself out, have the inquiry," the former deputy prime minister told ABC Radio National on Monday.

The auditor-general will review all taxpayer-funded water purchases since 2008 as the coalition looks to ease pressure over the $80 million buyback.

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I am not responsible for the vendor or purchase: Joyce water
I am not responsible for the vendor or purchase: Joyce water

Water has been in the spotlight since questions re-emerged about then-water minister Barnaby Joyce's role in approving the 2017 purchase of 28.7 gigalitres from Eastern Australia Agriculture.

"This morning I have written to the auditor-general of the Australian National Audit Office to ask him to review all water purchases from 2008 onward to make sure the community can continue to have confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan," Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told reporters in Tamworth on
Tuesday.

Two dead Murray cod float on the surface of the Darling River below
Scientists have found serious problems with the management of the Murray-Darling river system.
AAP

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen described the auditor-general review as a "cute little trick" to ward off unanswered questions about the water deal.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said unless the Agriculture and Water Resources Department provided unedited documents about the buyback by 5pm on Tuesday, he would back a wide-ranging review.

"Not with a big texta marking out all the interesting details but the fair dinkum paperwork, without the redactions, without the secret squirrel business which this government loves," he told reporters in Gladstone in Queensland.

The Labor leader said the inquiry should have the power to compel witnesses and get to the bottom of the issue.

"It won't be good enough if you just want to have some administrative, tick-box review," Mr Shorten said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists the water buyback program has been run strictly within the rules and subject to regular reviews by the auditor-general.

The Greens are calling for a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan over the water buyback from two properties in 2017, and Labor has left the door open to supporting such an inquiry.

Demands for information

In August 2017, the coalition government bought 28.7 gigalitres of water from two Eastern Australia Agriculture-owned properties, Clyde and Kia Ora, in Queensland at a cost of $78.9 million.

Labor has demanded more information on the purchase from the Agriculture and Water Resources Department, which water spokesman Tony Burke believes paid over the odds.

"You don't pay Versace prices for water that you get from the Reject Shop and that looks like what Barnaby Joyce has done," he told reporters in Cairns.

Mr Morrison has said Eastern Australia Agriculture's original asking price had been more than $5000 a megalitre, much higher than the agreed price of about $2700 a megalitre.

The Prime Minister dismissed suggestions there was anything wrong with the company that sold the water - Eastern Australia Agriculture - donating $55,000 to the Liberal Party four years before the sale.

He also noted the previous Labor government had also bought water off the company, citing a $300 million purchase.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the buyback deal.
AAP

Labor argues the difference is that its buybacks were conducted through a competitive tender process.

Mr Morrison also defended Mr Joyce and Energy Minister Angus Taylor - who was once a director of Eastern Australia Agriculture - saying a Senate inquiry showed the arrangements were conducted "at complete arm's length from any ministers".

Mr Joyce said the federal government had acted on a recommendation from the Queensland government, which confirmed it backed the buyback.

"The Queensland government was supportive of the purchase because it helped achieve the basin plan water recovery targets," state Natural Resources Minister Anthony Lynham said in a statement.

He said the price and any connection Mr Taylor had to Eastern Australia Agriculture were matters for the federal government.

Mr Taylor co-founded the company that sold the water but said he had nothing to do with it since entering federal parliament and received no benefit from the sale.

Mr Joyce said he has "absolutely nothing to hide" because he was distant from the process, as appropriate for a minister.

"Whatever question they're going to ask me, is a question the Labor Party is going to have to answer first because they were the first people to have to buy water off them," he said.

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