Murray-Darling watergate
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

In the past few days, the water buyback story (being called “watergate”) has gained momentum, so much so that it’s leading Nine’s The Sydney Morning Herald today, dominated a breakfast TV interview with the Prime Minister, and has chat show panellist Joe Hildebrand opining on how it will impact the election.

The bare bones of the story aren’t new, as Crikey has detailed elsewhere today. So why is it dominating the political news cycle now?

The story started to get traction on Twitter last week when a thread was posted that linked Energy Minister Angus Taylor to the buyback and pointed out his previous links to the EAA (the company at the centre of the controversy), and its parent company based in the Cayman Islands.

Taylor responded by sending legal letters to users who’d retweeted the thread, including journalists Margo Kingston and Michael West. The story was picked up by Ten’s Hamish Macdonald, who worked with West to report a long piece for The Project on Thursday, and the pressure hasn’t let up since.

But while there were some new bits and pieces around, what really made this a story this time around was the political context.

Firstly, then-agriculture minister now-backbencher Barnaby Joyce has had his political career come undone in the past year after the scandal of his marriage breakdown and child with a former staffer became tabloid fodder. That followed his own section 44 scandal, where he was found to be ineligible to sit in the parliament and had to recontest his seat. Joyce has already added again to the life of this story by first being unavailable for The Project, then texting in to Insiders panellist Patricia Karvelas with a statement about it on Sunday, and then giving a fiery interview to Karvelas on Radio National yesterday.

Secondly, interest in climate change has increased as an election issue as Australian farmers deal with a devastating drought. Alongside that issue is the Menindee fish kill over summer, which again brought focus onto the complicated Murray-Darling Basin Plan with striking images of the devastation. This story raises again the question of the management of water in this country, including under Joyce’s time as minister.

Thirdly, a political narrative about deals for mates has been running through the political news pages. Travel agency Helloworld is back on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald, about a donation it made to the Liberal Party during an accommodation tender process. The company, co-owned by the party’s federal treasurer, was in the headlines earlier this year when it was revealed that Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had not paid for a trip booked through the company (which he later paid for, saying he had not realised).

The cosy relationships between politicians and their business mates have been cropping up repeatedly over the past few months, and the relationship between Taylor and the company that benefited reinforces some elements of that narrative.

And, lastly, this is a story that has come up during an election campaign. Large sections of the news are dedicated to politics, party leaders are giving doorstop interviews most days, and the media is running tallies of who “wins” each day on the campaign trail.

The buybacks story fits into one of the big issues of the campaign — climate change — and has provided campaign announcements by Labor and the Greens in support of a royal commission into water, which leads to yet more coverage.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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