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Aug 21, 2008

How Cubbie (and Labor) consumed the Murray Darling

The story of Queensland's Cubbie Station is an incestuous saga of arrogance and influence, writes Bernard Keane.

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).

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.

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16 thoughts on “How Cubbie (and Labor) consumed the Murray Darling

  1. JamesK

    I know I shouldn’t gossip but i think that dreadful Downer man had something to do with that Iraq thingy as well….

  2. John Flynne

    Cubbie = G(r)oss,Rudd(erless) And W(r)ong all lace(y) d up.

  3. Tom McLoughlin

    Mmm wish Beattie had got that sale plan happening. I don’t believe Marilyn running interference for the ALP here either. 1981 is completely different given the systemic climate shift since then.

    What struck me too was this line from Phil Dickie “even as neighbours in the region were prevented from building far smaller dams”. This rings a bell.

    Switch to Peats Ridge, Mangrove Mountain in the Gosford Local Govt area (vote Sept 13). Local landholder Margaret Pontifix (also secretary MM District Community Group Inc registered charity) applies for a modest increase in groundwater allocation in 2005. Rejected. As are any other local small time farmers.

    Roughly the same time Coca Cola apply for a 41ML increase in an already over allocated aquifer with unlicensed use by quarries (big water users actually to wash clay from sand etc) and the local water supply for Gosford/Wyong under severe restrictions. Coca Cola want to expand their bottled water plant. No worries – sales through courtesy of the State Dept 2005 under ex Minister Craig Knowles. This Dept changes acronyms like a snake changes skin – DLWC, DIPNR, DNR, now DWE.

    We are told from sources that nothing under 100ML is even assessed by DWE. They don’t know the rainfall recharge rates there, they don’t know the (unlicensed) water users, they don’t even know how the sandstone aquifer works (more swiss cheese than bathtub).

    Coca Cola Amatil donated $2M to both major parties in the last 10 years. Today they posted their “second half profit” in “its biggest market, Australia” p21 Australian 21/8/08. Don’t know if that last bit could possibly be true. But here’s the thing – It’s all over allocated at MM and money politics looks to control who gets the rails run. It’s an utter market failure like climate change. These major party politicians can’t fix the problem – they are the problem. This is close to Sydney. Imagine how much worse in remote Murray Darling?

    Now here’s the kicker – The guys in the South Coast office of DWE here in NSW who waved CCA through at Peats Ridge are now apparently running the NSW component of supervision of the Murray Darling situation. They are the ‘experts’.

    Conclusion: It’s over. They killed the Murrary Darling.

  4. JamesK

    Yeah ….forgive me Marilyn.

    Jack has demonstrated the the blindingly obvious ( this i embarassing…..I really am at a loss as to how I failed to see it before now….still it’s never too late) and I am sorry for doubting Labor………

    That nice Mr. Rudd and the gentlemanly Mr. Brumby along with the sweet Anna Bligh and Messrs. Iemma and Rann will sit down, enjoy an nice cup of tea and quietly resolve the minor issue of the Murray-Darling just before Mr. Rudd suits up to save the planet.

  5. Chris Johnson

    The Murray-Darling’s certainly in its death throws but perhaps it’s because both our major parties allowed someone like Leith Boully into every water resource, primary industry, agriculture and land care decision-making board, committee, group, panel and council across four states. From the Murrimbidgee to the Darling, the Brisbane and Mary Rivers her presence and influence has seemingly ensured Cubbie Station and its environs are more than well cared for. Successive primary and environment industry ministers along with Premiers, Prime and deputy-Prime Ministers from both parties opened their doors to a young sprout from the NT’s Young Country/Liberal movement. Now Cubbie, Leith and her neighbouring properties languish with water licences guaranteeing their dominance as cotton corporate and privately financed harvesters of fresh water worth well in excess of ten-million dollars. The former director of the ABC, Australian Heritage Commission and member of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council….check out the rest, has surpassed any James Bond role. Even the National’s John Anderson succumbed to a Cubbie cuddle after the station hosted a ‘thank you John” party when he reneged on supporting its sale to the Queensland Government. And still the silly State with its endless no-brainer MP’s simply sealed the nation’s fate by courting a smart, self-serving cattle and cotton farmer with a single agenda. Make up your own minds.

  6. Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Very few if any labour politicians federal or state would have the courage if the wisdom to do the right thing regarding Cubbie and the Murray Darling destruction in the terms of your article outlining a seriously disempowering entanglement.

  7. Dr Harvey M Tarvydas #2

    Marilyn, concratulations, you are a bit of an authority.
    You’re right, our obsession with ‘climate corruption’ (my new name for ‘climate change’) has led us to forget what a drought is, or become so confused we dismiss drought breaking rain.

  8. Pamela

    Keep writing and stirring Bernard Keane. The time it has taken to dissect the Murray Darling murder is indicative of the power of those who cover up the crime.
    Why buy Cubbie?
    It should be resumed in the National interest.
    Ressusitate the river now.

  9. Acacia Rose

    Post the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul the global water justice movement – and it is considerable across tens of nations including Australia – is demanding that the UN formally recognise water as a HUMAN RIGHT and that the World Water Forum come under the banner of the UN. Australia – namely Queensland and one former Goss staffer – have effectively sold off public water resources to private enterprises – notably, the French Water Lords, Suez, Veolia and in South Australia, ‘United Water’ a consortium of Suez and Thames or now, Macquarie Water. The water problems for Brisbane are in part as a result of the so-called ‘public private partnerships’ which are nothing more than a gateway to the privatisation of public water, public water utilities and in the case of Cubbie Station a virtual hand out of public water. Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong should be a little more transparent about the Queensland and South Australia water privatisation agenda and in the middle, the Murray is virtually dead. Meanwhile, the Snowy River continues to subsidise the Murray, read – water privatisation! It is time to place Australia’s water resources under public management – a public trust, a totally independent water manager, free from political interference. The Snowy is virtually dead below Guthega Dam and Island Bend Pondage, virtually lifeless below Jindabyne Dam wall and the reason is just the same, selling off public water resources for water trading, ‘forward borrows’ and of course, so that Snowy Hydro can bump up its balance sheet including from trading in the derivatives market in order to invest more money in gas energy generation. Look out the Kimberly!

    Yes – time for a Charter of Human Rights and within that Charter, Water is listed as a HUMAN RIGHT.

    Kevin and Penny – your careers are linked to the death of our great rivers.

  10. Jack

    I fail to see what the problem is. We can argue about the past, but we don’t need to as the solutions (and water) will surely flow in the next day or two.

    My logic is flawless. In addition to lower food & petrol prices & better housing affordability I recall the present federal government also said that cheek to jowl labor governments would lead to a glorious future of harmonious cooperation between State & Commonwealth. Murray-Darling / Cubby therefore an easy fix once the mandarins sit down and i have full faith that action will follow. All you doubters will soon see the error of your ways !