NT government negotiated change in water rules allowing Fortune Agribusiness’s Singleton Station licence to proceed

Maureen O'Keefe
Maureen O’Keefe fears enormous groundwater extraction at Singleton Station will devastate her traditional land. (ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

Documents released under Freedom of Information laws show the Northern Territory government secretly negotiated with an investment company to change its water allocation rules, to allow it to develop one of Australia’s biggest fruit farms in the Central Australian desert.

Key points:

  • Traditional owners and environment groups who are challenging the Government’s decision to grant a water licence to Fortune Agribusiness
  • A traditional owner is concerned about the potential impacts on the semi-arid region, and that profits will go overseas
  • The NT government says there has been no preferential treatment for company in question

Traditional owners and environment groups who are challenging the government’s decision to grant the Northern Territory’s biggest-ever water licence to Fortune Agribusiness on Singleton Station south of Tennant Creek are horrified and feel it shows the process has been unfair.

Argi traditional owner David Curtis Junior said he was already very concerned about the potential impacts of the government’s decision in April to grant a 40,000-megalitre licence to the company seeking to develop a large-scale fruit farm.

“We are in a semi-arid region where climate change is impacting us already and tipping us over into desertification, trashing our most valuable resource water is a very real possibility,” he said.

“That volume of water that they are proposing to take is just too much.”

A photo of an Aboriginal man wearing a red shirt on in outback Australia
Mr Curtis Junior says the NT government cannot be trusted.(Supplied: Central Land Council)

Mr Curtis Junior said the evidence of secret negotiations between the NT government, Environment Department and Fortune Agribusiness called the department’s integrity as the decision-maker on water licences into question.

“How can their processes be trusted now?” Mr Curtis Junior said.

“The Territory government is broke and it appears that they are quite happy to, for convenience, put aside rules and regulations for quick gains to put dollars into the Treasury.”

The revelation comes as stakeholders await Environment Minister Eva Lawler’s review of the decision to award the water licence, which was requested by the NT Environment Centre before the documents came to light.

Ali Curung resident Maureen O’Keefe, whose traditional land includes Singleton Station, said the revelations made her angry.

“This is the most precious thing in the desert that they will take away from us, without it we will perish,” she said.

Emails reveal rules were quietly changed

Until last year the government’s water allocation plan for the area covering Singleton Station prohibited any damage by new developments to groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

Many of the ecosystems are Aboriginal sacred sites and include water holes and soaks and the plants and animals that depend on them.

But the emails, meeting notes and reports obtained by the Northern Territory Environment Centre under Freedom of Information laws have revealed those rules were changed after months of negotiations between Fortune Agribusiness and the NT Environment Department.

The documents show that in January, Fortune Agribusiness emailed NT Environment Department senior staff to say the regional water allocation plan would stop it gaining a water licence on the station.

“The Water Allocation Plan implies that all Ground Dependent Ecosystems are to be protected,” it wrote.

“Clearly any pumping whatsoever will, at least locally, draw down the water table below 15m and thus apparently breach this condition.”

An Aboriginal child about 5-years-old holds a leaky hose
Aboriginal families rely on local supplies of fresh drinking water near Singleton Station.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

An email from the Environment Department chief executive, Joanne Townsend, to her senior staff said that she, the Chief Minister Michael Gunner and the Environment Minister Eva Lawler met with the Fortune Agribusiness CEO Peter Wood on 24 September 2019.

Ms Townsend emailed her staff that evening about the meeting with Fortune Agribusiness.

“The primary issues raised are: they are four years in and no decision or apparent progress has been made in their water licence,” she said.

“From my perspective it is not the case that each and every groundwater dependant tree or even all ground water ecosystems is to be protected and we need to settle this issue and quickly.”

The documents show over the next five months Joanne Townsend, her senior staff and company negotiated a plan to allow 30 per cent per cent of the ecosystems to be damaged.

In February 2020, Department staff noted after discussing that threshold with Fortune Agribusiness in a meeting that, the company was “comfortable with that”.

Ms Townsend sent a draft of the new 30 per cent ecosystem damage rule to the company the next day.

The rule said: “The Department has determined that 70 per cent of the current extent of groundwater-dependent ecosystems in the control district should be protected from negative impact.”

Then, seven months later in September 2020, the company applied for the water licence.

That was the first time, Aboriginal traditional owners and their Central Land Council say, that they had heard about the plan to ask for 40,000 megalitres of water for the planned farm.

Sacred site gen Singleton Station
Many of the region’s sacred sites are part of groundwater-dependent ecosystems.(ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

‘Procedural advantage’ warning

The Environment Centre’s co-director Kirsty Howey said she was extremely concerned to find out about the government’s discussions with the company in a process other stakeholders, including traditional owners were not invited to take part in.

“This is extremely troubling conduct and an extremely troubling sequence of events that would quite rightly erode anyone’s trust in the Territory as a regulator,” she said.

“There are real questions about actual or perceived bias, about whether procedural fairness has been accorded to the parties and whether the water allocation plan that is supposed to underpin this licence has in fact been complied with, and we say that it hasn’t been.”

Photo of a blonde woman with glasses reading paperwork
Ms Howey is challenging the legality of the water rules.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

The documents show that in November 2020, one of Ms Townsend’s water planners wrote to her and other senior staff to express concerns there could be a perception the desert farm proponents were being given a “procedural advantage” over other stakeholders including the Central Land Council which exposed the department to “corporate risk”.

But Ms Townsend rejected the concerns.

In April this year, she approved the licence, using the new 30 per cent rule as a key reason.

Justifying the decision, the NT government said the licence would be ramped up to 40,000 megalitres being used per year over eight years so that any environmental impacts could be monitored.

However, the documents show Ms Townsend had written to the company in January 2020 noting that eight years would be too short a period “to observe the full extent of any environmental impacts”.

Ms Townsend has not yet responded to an interview request put to her by the ABC on Monday morning.

In a statement, the Environment Department said “the suggestion that the guideline was developed with consultation with Fortune is not correct”.

“Fortune Agribusiness had no input into, or influence over, the development of the guideline,” the statement said.

“Once the guideline was developed, there were meetings between [department] staff and Fortune Agribusiness and their consultants to explain the guideline and its application, to help ensure that their application would meet the information requirements set by the guideline.”

‘We will pursue legal action’

Before these revelations, the Environment Centre lodged an appeal to the water licence decision, which the NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler was currently considering.

The Centre said it was considering applying for a judicial review of any resulting decision to approve the licence.

The Central Land Council Chief Executive Les Turner said his organisation would also consider court action if the Minister endorses the licence approval.

“The Central Land Council certainly will be pursuing legal action, on the request from traditional owners, and the other avenue for us is [referral to] the Northern Territory ICAC,” Mr Turner said.

An Aboriginal woman and a white man wearing glasses
Ms O’Keefe and Mr Turner say the NT government has excluded traditional owners from discussions.(ABC News: Steven Schubert)

“The behaviour by the Northern Territory government where traditional owners have not been involved in the process, yet they can go and deal with private business, is outrageous.

“We believe that it is a process that has been tainted with bias.”

‘We’ll always do everything to be fair’

On its election in 2016, the Gunner government promised to improve the management of water licensing after the former Country Liberals administration lost power, mired in cronyism allegations, after it changed water allocation rules before awarding a 5,000 megalitre licence to one of its party’s federal election candidates for her station.

Central Australian Independent MLA Robyn Lambley said the documents on the Singleton Station licence appear to show that the Gunner government had failed to keep its promise to deliver better water governance.

“This stinks, it doesn’t pass the pub test, you can’t just change the rules to suit certain applicants,” she said.

Robyn Lambley is wearing a long sleeved floral dress and is outside Parliament House with a serious expression.
Ms Lambley has accused the NT government of secrecy.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“Government has to be better than this. It has to be transparent and have the rules laid out before any of these discussions take place.

“Fortune Agribusiness by their own statements is primarily a Chinese business, 70 per cent of their produce from that farm is to be exported to China, they will rely on more than 1,100 seasonal workers a year to work in this very remote area, so what does the Northern Territory actually get out of this?”

The NT government has told the ABC it has done nothing wrong.

Environment Minister Eva Lawler provided a statement to the ABC, which said: “Ministers consistently meet with stakeholders, including the private sector, peak bodies and community groups.

“The government has strict and robust application processes in place for any development including in relation to water.”

A drone shot of landscape in Central Australia. There are trees and red dirt roads
Around 1,000 people call the region around the arid station home.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Asked whether he felt the water licence application had been dealt with properly by his government, Mr Gunner said: “Obviously we’ll always do everything in every process to be fair. I also acknowledge that every process has an ability to review or appeal and it’s going through that at the moment.”

He added that he felt his government had improved the integrity of the system.

“We have done huge improvements to how water is allocated, we’ve introduced the science back into water allocations,” he said.

Fortune Agribusiness provided a statement that said it “does not expect any preferential treatment and appreciates that due process must take its course”.