Cotton On: Politicians crawl through the Cubbie Hole

The war of words over Cubbie Station has started. The Foreign Investment Review Board has recommended to Treasurer Wayne Swan the sale of Australia’s largest cotton grower and holder of water licences to a consortium dominated by Chinese textile producer Shandong RuYi. The sale, in the hands of administrators, required FIRB approval as it was in excess of the $244 million takeover trigger. Swan has used it as a political attack to wedge the Opposition after the State Government backed the sale while local LNP senator Barnaby Joyce said it was not in the national interest.

Swan explained his reasons for the approval in an August 31 media release. Cubbie had been on the market for three years and the joint proposal by Shandong RuYi and Aussie wool company Lempriere had given him several undertakings. These included RuYi selling down its interest to 51 per cent within three years while maintaining “appropriate” board representation, having Cubbie managed by a Lempriere sub-company and offering jobs to all existing Cubbie employees.
Swan points to the National Food Plan which is in draft form and seeking public submissions until September 30. That Plan vigorously defends the need for foreign investment in Australia as being critical for the agriculture and food sectors. “Foreign investment in agriculture supports production, creates jobs and contributes to the prosperity of rural communities and the broader economy,” the Plan green paper said. The paper said foreign investments undergo a rigorous national interest test and are subject to the same laws and regulations dealing with competition, tax and governance.

Cubbie employs only 50 people with another 120 contractors  But Senator Joyce said today it was the loss of “prime agricultural land to an overseas interest.”  The sale would involve Australia’s biggest water licence going to an overseas interest and 13 per cent of the nation’s cotton crop.

Barnaby lives in St George 80km north of Cubbie. Cubbie’s massive scale and potential to impact on the entire Murray Darling Basin, is most impressive from the satellite image. In the middle of a parched brown western Queensland landscape, lies a darker patch of fertile ground following the Murray-Darling plain. Due west of Dirranbandi, (100km north of the NSW border) is Cubbie Station a patchwork quilt of storage dams, stretching along 30km of the Culgoa River. At 93,000 hectares, Cubbie is Australia’s biggest irrigator and most of the water is used to make cotton.
Cottonseed came to Australia in the first fleet and was an early cottage industry. The shortages of the American Civil War set Queensland cotton up on a commercial basis but the industry ebbed and flowed with inconsistent 20th century demand. With subsidies from the newly elected National Party government, South West Queensland got in on the act in 1960. It has been badly affected by droughts in 1995, 2004 and 2008. In 2010/11 there was a record Australian crop of 4.1 million bales showing an industry in resurgence after almost a decade of drought.
The recovery came too late for the owners of Cubbie. Cubbie had always got away with paying a pittance for its water to the disgust of its neighbours and NSW irrigators downstream. Slack government processes allowed Cubbie to gradually suck in scarce water resources. As one commentator noted about other parts of the world, “water diversion on the scale of Cubbie could easily be the cause of war.”
Despite favourable treatment, the company went broke in 2009. Cubbie Group chair Keith De Lacy – a former Treasurer in the Wayne Goss government – blamed the drought. De Lacy said the station had only had one good season in five and the company was selling up to reduce debt and recapitalise the business to pursue other farming opportunities.  SA independent senator Nick Xenophon said Cubbie going into voluntary administration proved the station was not a sustainable use of water. “What it does indicate is a failure of water policy at the Queensland Government level and it indicates even more strongly that you need to have a federal takeover of the river system,” he said.
This week Xenophon opposed the decision to approve the sale. “These important environmental assets shouldn’t be flogged off to a foreign company that has no connection to Australia, and no obligation to act in our interests,” he said. “There’s also a concern the impact this could have on the entire Murray Darling Basin.” He also called on FIRB to make its report public so the public could be confident in its decision. “There must be a much lower trigger point for investigation,” he said. “We need much more transparency in terms of why applications are approved or rejected and we need a national register which lists foreign owned properties so that we know who owns what.”

One thought on “Cotton On: Politicians crawl through the Cubbie Hole

  1. The problem seems to be the water allocation rather than who buys the property. Because the buyers are foreign, this triggered the FIRB and a possible federal intervention, but if it was bought by an Australian consortium, then the federal government could do diddly squat about it. But Queensland governments of all political persuasions have been too timid to act – and I think there’s a problem with different sorts of water – river water, rain water, and run off – all of it good H2O that could be better used than being converted into cheap T-shirts.
    I’m with Barnaby on this one – but is this the same Barnaby who led the opposition to the federal government’s Murray-Darling plan?

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