The view from Billinudgel

Murky waters
The watergate scandal may be clear as mud, but confirms much we already knew


What has inevitably been re-christened as “watergate” is hardly a barbecue stopper.

For most voters, the issue is both too remote and too complicated: apparently there are different kinds of water and different ways of “harvesting” (whatever that means) this water, and there are elaborate regulations about selling the stuff, deciding what to do with it and evaluating the outcomes. And all of this before we get to the ethics of paying a large fortune to anonymous parties based in a secretive tax haven half a world away.

The issue is difficult to understand, but that does not mean it can be dismissed as part of the Canberra bubble.

Even before the former water minister, Barnaby Joyce, imploded dementedly on radio, the situation smelled a bit off; after his performance it positively stunk. The attempt to shut the issue down via a protracted inquiry by the government auditor only only confirmed that, yet again, the government was scrambling for cover.

Insofar as he was coherent at all, Joyce maintained that he had followed due process by signing off the largesse; he had not broken any rules. And this may well be true, because he was responsible for the process and rules ever since he demanded (and received from a compliant Malcolm Turnbull) full control of the vital portfolio back in 2015.

Joyce’s aim was simple and straightforward: to deliver to his mates, principally the irrigators at the northern end of the Murray–Darling Basin. The environment? Just another fraudulent socialist conspiracy, like climate change.

Due largely to the insatiable demands of the big cotton farmers, water had become a valuable commodity – at times more valuable than the crops it is supposed to sustain. And the irrigators, not content to store as much of it as possible in dams, built levees to retain floodwaters that would normally return to the rivers, and claimed this water as their personal property.

Hence, when replenishing the southern end of the Murray–Darling became imperative, the irrigators replied, “Sure, but it will cost you.” And to make certain that the right people got the loot, Joyce quietly removed the need for public tender – selected vendors were allowed to effectively set their own prices directly to his department.

This was blatant cronyism. But of course, it was also within the rules – Joyce’s rules. And it worked, until a few media whistleblowers finally cried foul.

The scandal – which it clearly is – may not in itself change votes, but it adds to the list of sloppy, devious and suspect handouts that has bedevilled the government. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant, contracts for security on Manus Island, and more recently the hasty signing-off of a uranium mine the day before the election was called are just a few that would never pass the pub test.

The government has routinely bypassed due process, ignored due diligence and refused to countenance even a gesture towards transparency. Watergate exemplifies the government’s contempt for the interests of those who actually pay the bills.

And it has exposed Joyce as a blustering, blundering, bilious Beetrooter. But we already knew that, didn’t we?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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