Water is a precious resource in the Northern Territory, and the Country Liberal government’s decision to allocate a water licence to an otherwise unviable farm that just happens to be owned by a CLP candidate for office has raised some eyebrows. With the now-irrigated property rumoured to have recently sold to a commercial operation, questions about power, influence and who knew what and when are coming to the fore.
At 96 square kilometres, Stylo Station is, by Northern Territory standards, a modestly sized cattle station that straddles the Stuart Highway just south of the small town of Mataranka in “we of the never-never” country around the headwaters of the Roper River.
Stylo Station has been run by Lindsay and Bettina (Tina) MacFarlane since they bought the freehold title from the NT Land Corporation in the early 1990s. Even at 15,000 hectares, Tina MacFarlane has admitted that for “up here,” Stylo is “not really a lot to make a viable farm out of”.
The MacFarlanes, long-time supporters of the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party, remained pretty much below the political radar until late 2009, when Tina appeared before a Senate committee hearing into food production, spruiking her plans for irrigated stock-feed crops — peanuts, sorghum and corn — on Stylo and the problems she was having with the NT government’s administration and methodology developed for water planning.
The then-NT Labor government, in partnership with the National Water Commission, was busy preparing a water allocation plan for the Tindall aquifer, which, as noted by the planners, is highly valued for cultural, social and economic values.
The MacFarlanes had no luck getting their water licence until after former chief minister Terry Mills’ so-called “bush revolt” at the NT general election in late August 2012. Tina MacFarlane was campaign manager for then-CLP member Larissa Lee’s successful tilt at the seat of Arnhem. In October that same year the MacFarlanes made a new application to draw 5800 megalitres per annum from the Tindall aquifer. A few weeks later, in mid-November 2012, Tina MacFarlane was confirmed as the CLP candidate for Labor incumbent Warren Snowdon’s seat of Lingiari for the federal election due in September the next year (Snowdon retained his seat).
Shortly thereafter, the MacFarlanes’ application was approved, which even NT Treasurer Dave Tollner admitted “may look bad”. In late March 2013, he told the ABC:
“This is a signal that we are going to be much easier to deal with than the former government, who of course were puppets of the extreme greenies … It would be inconsistent of us to deny Stylo Station water simply because the owners have an association with the Country Liberal Party.”
NT Land Resources Minister Willem Westra van Holthe assured listeners to the ABC’s Country Hour that there had been no “dodgy deals” done with the Stylo Station water allocation because Tina MacFarlane was a CLP candidate. “There was absolutely nothing suss about this at all … [It] was dealt with on its merits, and the consumptive pool is large enough to cope with it.” Under the “new and improved” modelling of the Tindall aquifer, the consumptive pool had almost doubled from 19,500 megalitres to 36,000 megalitres per annum.
But under questioning in an NT Legislative Assembly estimates hearings in June 2014, van Holthe, who had previously denied in written answers to questions that there had been any formal or informal communications between himself and MacFarlane, admitted that he had met with her in his Katherine electorate office in January 2013 and had discussed her water licence. He said he would not provide any further details as he was “not in the habit of disclosing the details of conversations that occur either in my electorate office of in my ministerial office”.
Now Sue Neales has reported in The Weekend Australian that the MacFarlanes have sold Stylo to Indian sandalwood producer Tropical Forestry Services for $4 million, but Tina MacFarlane flatly denied the property had been sold when contacted by Crikey.
On Tuesday this week TFS told Crikey:“We have no further comment as the matter is currently commercially confidential.”
Neales told Crikey she stood by the information provided to her by TFS that the company had acquired an interest in Stylo Station.