The extent of the Queensland Government’s parochial and profligate attitude to water management continues to attract criticism. Put simply, the Queenslanders couldn’t care less about the health of rivers either on their side of the border or beyond. Penny Wong can only wring her hands and sympathise with farmers downstream.
The Queenslanders continue to trot out the line that they take only 5% of water from the Murray-Darling. It’s literally correct — that’s what they take out. It’s what they prevent from entering from run-off that is the key — and that is much more. The CSIRO’s recent report on Water Availability in the Condamine-Balonne reveals a vast and unsustainably over-allocated system that sees over 50% of water extracted from the Balonne-Culgoa before it reaches NSW.
You don’t need to go down into the Darling or further on into the Murray to see the environmental havoc wrought by the Queenslanders. Lightning Ridge station owner and Western Catchment Management Authority chairman Ross Treweeke, who has been battling the Queensland Government’s profligate approach to water licensing for decades, told us about thousands of hectares of dead trees on the Culgoa floodplain and a system approaching tipping point. Treweeke said that the comments of Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water’s Ross Krebs to The Australian said it all. “Krebs complains that run-off ‘breaks out into floodplains or alternatively feeds into terminal wetlands resulting in a great loss of this water’ — that sums up the attitude of the Queenslanders — water shouldn’t be ‘lost’ to the environment.”
For years, Cubbie Group — the vast cancer on the Balonne-Culgoa which exemplifies all that is wrong with the states’ management of water — has maintained that it only extracts 0.2% of Murray-Darling water. Fair Water Use Australia has pointed out that this ignores the bulk of Cubbie’s water — from overland flows prevented from entering the Balonne and Culgoa Rivers — and that the 0.2% is based on average flows anyway, rather than conditions following heavy rains.
That said, Cubbie Group and other Queensland irrigators are only doing what they have been permitted to do by the Queensland Government. Moreover, the development of a monster like Cubbie Station has been permitted by both sides of Queensland politics. In an outstanding article in 2000, journalist Phil Dickie explored the outrageous circumstances that fostered the development of Cubbie Station in the late 1980s and 1990s — including the fact that it pays just $3700 a year for an allocation of over 500,000 ML of water, and that National Party politicians had intervened favourably on Cubbie’s behalf.
Dickie also noted that Cubbie’s biggest period of expansion was during the Goss Government, which declined to require Environmental Impact Statements or any other regulatory assessment as Cubbie exploited Queensland’s lax water allocation and planning laws to establish vast dams — even as neighbours in the region were prevented from building far smaller dams.
The Goss Government’s Treasurer, Keith De Lacy, is now Cubbie Group chairman. Goss’s chief of staff, of course, is now Prime Minister. And Cubbie Group is today plugged straight into Queensland’s business elite, with De Lacy and former executive of State Government-owned investment company QIC Peter Forbes on the board. Until earlier this year, when he headed to Canada to take over the Canadian Wheat Board, former Queensland Sugar head and Queensland Competition Authority member Ian White was also on the board (it’s an incestuous world in Queensland business – White’s chairman at Queensland Sugar was De Lacy, who was also on the Macarthur Coal board with Forbes — headed by Ken Talbot, famous for his loan to Labor Minister Gordon Nuttall).
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Cubbie obviously isn’t just well-connected on the ALP side. Its joint managing director John Grabbe is a National Party stalwart. And it has its own Senator, Barnaby Joyce, a grateful recipient of donations from Cubbie and Grabbe and a dogged advocate of Cubbie’s interests in the Senate.
Today’s revelations by Asa Wahlquist, and the blatant breach of Queensland’s inter-governmental agreement with NSW on development on the Paroo River demonstrates that the Queenslanders continue to be as parochial as ever about their approach to water resources. The Queensland Government — regardless of political orientation — simply doesn’t care about anyone downstream.
Meantime, Penny Wong talks about water buybacks and how the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority will improve things. Let’s hope she changes the new Authority’s advisors. The current Murray-Darling Basin Commission advisory committee includes John Grabbe. Not content with preventing water from reaching the Murray-Darling, Cubbie Group gets to influence the management of the entire Basin.
The only real solution is to remove the states from management of the basin entirely. On the evidence, they can’t be trusted and they don’t care.