While Cubbie Station is a vast blight on Queensland’s environmental record, and on water policy in Australia generally, its entry into voluntary administration is nothing to celebrate. It is merely confirmation of what has been evident for well over a decade — Cubbie Station was fundamentally unsustainable.

Yesterday afternoon, an even more cranky than usual Barnaby Joyce held a press conference up in the Press Gallery and launched a savage attack on his Coalition colleague Bill Heffernan, in effect blaming both Heffernan and the Government for Cubbie’s fate. If Heffernan was especially litigious, which he isn’t, he might consult his lawyers, so critical were Joyce’s comments.

Joyce has been a long-term apologist for Cubbie Station, a somewhat understandable view given he lives down the road from it. But he stands as a polar opposite to Heffernan on water policy, not merely in attitude but knowledge. Heffernan has probably forgotten more about water issues than Joyce will ever know.

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Joyce’s comments were a remarkable distortion of the facts. Not merely did he try to pin the blame on Heffernan, he also claimed that a lack of regulatory certainty was almost as big a factor in the financial difficulties faced by Cubbie as the drought.

As Crikey has previously noted (following the great work of journalist Phil Dickie), Cubbie was developed with virtually no regulatory restrictions by successive Queensland Governments, and particularly the Goss Government, whose Treasurer, Keith De Lacy, ended up Chairman of the Cubbie Group. The regulatory generosity extended to the fact that Cubbie was paying just $3700 a year for an allocation of over 500,000 ML of water.

That’s because Cubbie is based primarily on the interception of overland flows, drawing off flood events that would otherwise enter the Balonne and Culgoa Rivers. It is licensed to draw “only” 70 GL out of the Culgoa itself, which is the basis for the claim — repeated by Joyce yesterday — that it only draws out a tiny fraction of water from the Murray-Darling Basin. Virtually the entire Cubbie business model was based on overland flows, which were unregulated and free in the 1990s.

The Queensland Government — which continues to ignore the impacts of its water policy decisions downstream — was in the process of handing licenses for those overland flows to Cubbie until a court challenge halted the process earlier this year.

If it’s one thing that Cubbie always had under successive Queensland governments, it’s certainty that it would face virtually no regulation.

All Heffernan — who has so far remained judiciously silent on Joyce’s claims — did back in August was to point out that the overland flows licensing process was under court challenge, and call for Cubbie Station to be — rather than purchased by the Government — instead left in private hands and scaled back to a more sustainable level. He has previously called Cubbie “visionary, but on the wrong scale.” In retrospect Heffernan’s call was exactly right. Nick Xenophon expressed the same views, although oddly Joyce failed to have a swing at the independent Senator as well.

So what does Keith De Lacy think sent Cubbie into administration? Bill Heffernan and Nick Xenophon? Regulatory uncertainty?

“It was drought that beat us,” De Lacy said yesterday. No floods, no water for Cubbie. That’s what is technically known as “unsustainable.”

That plus owing several hundred million dollars.

Perhaps the collapse of Cubbie will be the catalyst for the Queensland Government to take a serious look at how it manages water. When even the mighty Cubbie is brought to its knees despite decades of favourable regulation, there’s clearly something profoundly wrong with the way Queensland manages its natural resources.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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