Government rule change unfairly advantages horticulture company

The Central Land Council says the NT Government must scrap the Singleton Station water licence decision following revelations by the ABC that the government may have bent the rules to give Fortune Agribusiness an unfair advantage over Aboriginal landowners and the public.

“Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that one of the government’s own water planners warned against creating the impression that the government gave the company an unfair procedural advantage over the rights and interests of traditional owners, native title holders and remote community residents,” said CLC chief executive Les Turner.

“These documents show that the NT Environment Department chief executive Jo Townsend (who also happens to be the NT water controller) was alerted to the risk of the perception that her department is either incompetent or something more sinister is going on, but ignored the warning.”

“They demonstrate that the government puts private profits before the rights and interests of our people and treats sacred site protection with total contempt.”

The documents show that following a 2019 meeting between Ms Townsend, Fortune Agribusiness, chief minister Michael Gunner and water security minister Eva Lawler, Ms Townsend directed her department to quickly fix the issue of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, so that it would be clear that not all of these ecosystems needed to be protected.
The department then developed a guideline in consultation with the company which Ms Townsend approved.

It applies exclusively to the water region that includes by Singleton Station and allows for the destruction of up to 30 per cent of ground-water-dependent ecosystems, which were previously protected.
In 2020, this time acting as the water controller, she referred to the guideline in her decision to award the NT’s biggest-ever water licence to the company, allowing it to pump up 40,000 mega litres of finite groundwater per year for 30 years, for free and largely to grow export crops.

“Unsurprisingly, the company’s modelling showed that the impact of the licence on groundwater-dependent ecosystems would be within the 30 per cent allowed by the guideline,” Mr Turner said.

“As representatives of the traditional owners the CLC took part in water planning for the region around Singleton in good faith and made sure the water allocation plan stated that Aboriginal cultural values must be protected,” Mr Turner said.

“The department needs to explain why, without consulting with us, it tailored a guideline for the benefit of Fortune Agribusiness that flies in the face of that plan and allows the company to destroy the very ecosystems that are home to dozens of sacred sites.”

The water controller granted the licence before a thorough assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposal on culturally important groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

“She ignored the views of the traditional owners and failed to consider the impact of the water licence on their sites. She didn’t even include any conditions for sacred site protection in the licence,” he said.

“If Minister Lawler is a fair and independent umpire in the current review of the licence she would listen to the traditional owners and scrap it rather than roll over for private business.”