MUNGO MACCALLUM: Watergate? It's just Barnaby following his own rules

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Watergate exemplifies the Government’s contempt to the interests of those of us who actually pay the bills.

FOR MOST VOTERS, the issue is both too remote and too complicated.

Apparently, there are different kinds of water, different ways of “harvesting” them (whatever that means), elaborate regulations about selling the stuff, deciding what to do with it and evaluating the outcomes — and all of that before we have to discuss the ethics of paying a large fortune to deliberately anonymous British tax avoiders based in a secretive tax haven half a world away.  

There are more immediate and more relevant matters to argue about. But because it is all too difficult to understand, that does not mean it can be dismissed as some kind of Canberra bubble.

Even before the then Water Minister Barnaby Joyce imploded dementedly on national television, it smelled a bit off and after his performance, it positively stunk. And the attempt to shut it down, via a protracted inquiry to the government auditor only confirmed that, yet again, the Government had been caught with its collective hands in the taxpayers’ pockets to transfer what should have been common wealth to its rich cronies, and was scrabbling for cover.

In so far 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 had devised the process and the rules himself when 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 greedy irrigators at the northern end of the Murray Darling Basin. 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 was supposed to sustain. And the irrigators, not content to store as much of it in dams as possible, built levees to retain flood waters which would normally return to the rivers and claim them 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 sure the right people got the loot, Joyce quietly removed the need for public tender — selected clients were allowed to effectively set their own prices directly to his department.

This was blatant cronyism, an open invitation to corruption. But, of course, it was within the rules — his rules. And it worked. Until a few media whistleblowers finally cried foul.

The scandal – which it clearly is – may not change votes in itself, but it adds to the list which has bedevilled the Government over sloppy, devious and suspect handouts to its friends and supporters in the loop, unavailable to normal punters. The Great Barrier Reef grant, the Manus Island contract and now, 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.

There has been a routine of bypassing due process, ignoring due diligence and a refusal to countenance even a gesture towards transparency. Watergate exemplifies the Government’s contempt to the interests of those of us who actually pay the bills.

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

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission

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