This brief paragraph in a report on sandalwood promoter TFS Pty Ltd by agribusiness journalist Sue Neales in the Weekend Australian has raised questions over the future of a controversial water allocation to a former County Liberal Party candidate.
“A new 7,000 hectare aquifer irrigated property, Stylo, was bought two weeks ago near Mataranka in the Territory for $4m.”
TFS–Tropical Forestry Services Corporation Ltd–is the largest grower of Indian sandalwood on plantations across the Top End of the country and in recent years has acquired–through purchase of freehold interests or leaseholds–extensive interests in the Northern Territory and around Kununurra in WA.
At 96 square kilometres, Stylo Station is, by Territory standards at least, a mid-sized cattle station that straddles the Stuart Highway just south of the small town of Mataranka in “we of the never-never” country around the headwaters of the Roper River. The smaller part, known as NT Portion 7019, lies on the eastern side of the Stuart Highway, it’s larger cousin, NT Portion 7018, to the west. NT Portion 7018 is just over 66 square kilometres or 6,600 or so hectares in size, comfortably close to the 7,000 hectares referred to by the Weekend Australian.
Stylo Station has been run by Lindsay and Bettina (Tina) MacFarlane since they bought the freehold title–most pastoral stations are owned under various forms of leasehold–from the NT Land Corporation in the early 1990s. Lindsay’s family has been in the Roper River district since the 1940s. The MacFarlane’s have sold off various chunks of Stylo’s original 15,000 hectares over the years and run cattle on the remaining lots. Even at 15,000 hectares, Tina MacFarlane has admitted that for “up here,” Stylo is ‘not really a lot to make a viable farm out of.’
The MacFarlanes, long-time supporters of the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party, remained pretty much below the political radar until September 2009, when Tina MacFarlane made a vigorous submission to the Senate Select Committee inquiry into Food Production in Australia. A month later, in evidence to a hearing of that committee in Canberra, she spoke of her plans for irrigated stock-feed crops–peanuts, sorghum and corn–on Stylo and the problems she was having with the NT government’s administration and methodology developed for water planning.
Meanwhile, the then NT Labor government, in partnership with the National Water Commission, was busy preparing a water allocation plan for the Tindall aquifer, which, as noted by the planners, is highly valued for cultural, social and economic values and the :
… numerous pristine groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) including thermal pools, natural springs, large wetlands and the Roper River, which are highly valued by the Mataranka community and its visitors for their social, cultural, environmental and economic significance. The Tindall Limestone Aquifer which supplies these GDEs, also provides a high quality and easily accessible resource for expanding water consumptive industries including irrigation, pastoral operations and watering for camp grounds that is the economic backbone for the area.
A key component of the planning process was the establishment of Mataranka Water Advisory Committee (MWAC), which provided a forum for government planners to provide information to the local community and use the expertise and local knowledge of locals:
… to make decisions based on recommendations into the community values and perception relating to water resource management. This ensures that environmental, cultural, residential, horticultural and public water supply decisions will be at the communities‘ best interest.
By December 2010 the MacFarlanes had become frustrated by their engagement with the NT Labor government’s water planning processes and engaged Sydney silk Don Grieve QC and barrister Dixie Coulter–both acting pro bono–to challenge a decision to refuse them a water licence by the Controller of Water Resources before the Water Review Tribunal. In January 2011 the Tribunal recommended that the Minister uphold the Controller’s decision. The Minister advised the MacFarlanes of that decision in late February 2011. The MacFarlanes then appealed the Minister’s decision to the NT Supreme Court and their application was heard before Justice Judith Kelly in June 2012.
Before Justice Kelly handed down her decision in December 2012, the CLP, led by Terry Mills, swept to power on the back of a so-called “bush revolt” at the NT general election in late August 2012. Tina MacFarlane was campaign manager for then CLP member Larissa Lee’s successful tilt at the seat of Arnhem. On 26 October 2012 the MacFarlanes made a new application to draw 5,800 megalitres per annum from the Tindall aquifer.
In mid-November 2012 Tina MacFarlane was confirmed as the CLP candidate for Labor incumbent Warren Snowdon’s seat of Lingiari for the federal election due in September the next year. On 6 December 2012 Justice Kelly dismissed the MacFarlane’s application to review the decision not to award them a water licence in 2010.
The first six months of the Mills CLP government was chaos writ large and in mid-March 2013 Alice Springs-based MLA Adam Giles assumed leadership in a messy coup. One week later, the NT Treasurer Dave Tollner, speaking about the decision to grant a water licence to the MacFarlanes, agreed that the decision “may look bad” and told the ABC that:
This is a signal that we are going to be much easier to deal with than the former Government, who of course were puppets of the extreme greenies … It would be inconsistent of us to deny Stylo Station water simply because the owners have an association with the Country Liberal Party.
On 25 March 2013 new Water Controller Rod Applegate released the written reasons for his decision to allow the MacFarlanes to extract 5,800 megalitres of water each year based upon new and “improved” modelling that included permission to construct seven new bores in addition to the two existing bores on the property. Significantly for present purposes:
The granted licence cannot be traded until a water allocation plan is declared for the aquifer, at which time trading must be in accordance with the requirements of the plan. The granted licence is subject to existing provisions of the Water Act in regard to the sale or subdivision.
The expressions of concern that followed the announcement came not only from Tollner’s “extreme greenies” but also from farmers, fishers, indigenous groups and cattle producers with interests in the Roper River region and beyond. NT Land Resources Minister van Holthe assured listeners to the ABC’s Country Hour that there had been no “dodgy deals” done with the Stylo Station water allocation because Tina MacFarlane was a CLP candidate. “There was absolutely nothing suss about this at all … [it] was dealt with on its merits, and the consumptive pool is large enough to cope with it.” Under the “new and improved” modelling of the Tindall aquifer, the consumptive pool had almost doubled from 19,500 megalitres to 36,000 megalitres per annum.
In August 2013 the ABC reported that in February 2013, a month before Applegate’s decision, an NT government Water Resources planner–whose report had been released to the ABC following an FoI application–had opposed the MacFarlane application for several reasons, including possible adverse affects upon the water supply for the downstream Aboriginal township of Ngukurr, a reduction in supply to natural springs in the local national park and potential impacts on a downstream mining project. She recommended, as the local water allocation plan was still being prepared in consultation with local stakeholders, that no new water licences be issued until that plan was finalised.
In the alternative, she recommended that a reduced licence could be issued, allowing incremental increases following the MacFarlanes proving the development of bores on their land and noted that to date the MacFarlanes had not used any of their allocation.
The ABC was denied access to 65 pages of briefing documents provided to the Water Controller and 13 pages of correspondence between elected members of the Country Liberal Party and Water Controller Applegate on the basis that they “formed part of the deliberative process or could cause confusion or unnecessary debate.”
In May 2014, amid continuing controversy over the grant of their water licence, the MacFarlanes lodged three subdivision applications over Stylo Station, a plan that a year earlier Dave Tollner said he encouraged. To date it appears that the MacFarlane’s applications for subdivision have not proceeded beyond the submission stage.
Under questioning in NT Legislative Assembly Estimates Hearings in June 2014, Minister van Holthe, who had previously denied in two written answers to questions that there had been any formal or informal communications between himself and Tina MacFarlane, admitted under questioning that he had met with her in his Katherine electorate office in January 2013 and had discussed her water licence but that he would not provide any further details as he was “not in the habit of disclosing the details of conversations that occur either in my electorate office of in my ministerial office.”
During the same Estimates Hearings Minister van Holthe and Water Controller Applegate were asked to shed light on how water allocations might be traded. Independent MLA Gerry Wood asked Minister van Holthe if the MacFarlanes could sell their water, noting “they received it for nothing and I believe it belongs to the people.” Minister van Holthe responded that water trading “becomes effective … when an aquifer is fully allocated … no one in their right mind will buy water when it is currently freely available from the NT government.”
Under further questioning from Gerry Wood, Minister van Holthe and Water Controller Applegate were able to shed some light on how the MacFarlanes could deal with their water allocation.
Mr Wood: … If they have a bore on one block – I do not know how it works technically, but Portion 7018 has a water license application. If they sell Lot B and it has no bore on it, can the people who buy Lot B go along to MacFarlane and say, “Can we have a portion of that licence for the entire block?”
Minister van Holthe deferred to Water Controller Applegate.
Mr Applegate: The license is issued to existing bores on the block and for any portion of that licence to be transferred to another portion of the land, a new bore has to go with that portion of the land … they would have to put the bore in and seek approval to transfer a portion of that bore and then be in a position to subdivide that portion of land and sell it.
Mr Wood: To put it in simple terms, can MacFarlane sell the water component that goes with the bore?
Mr Applegate: Trading can only exist in the NT when there is an endorsed water allocation plan in place.
Whether TFS has bought Stylo Station from the MacFarlanes remains unclear, though the MacFarlanes are adamant that it has not been sold. TFS yesterday told The Northern Myth that “We have no further comment as the matter is currently commercially confidential.” One conclusion that can be drawn from that comment is that a deal of some kind is in the works.
Tina MacFarlane has repeatedly denied to The Northern Myth that Stylo Station had been sold and would not respond to any questions about whether the MacFarlanes had entered into any other arrangements with TFS or any other matters to do with their plans for Stylo Station or their water allocation.
On Sunday Tina MacFarlane told The Northern Myth “we have not discussed or entered into any arrangements with anyone, we haven’t sold Stylo.”
Last evening Lindsay and Tina MacFarlane sent an email to The Northern Myth and the ABC stating that:
Stylo has not been sold.
We have not negotiated the sale of Stylo to anyone. We will remain owning and running Stylo in its normal manner into the foreseeable future and no event has occurred which will alter that fact.
Demands have been made that we provide some further or alternative version of our personal information. We will not make any further or other comment and we consider that the persistent attempts to harangue us to disclose any matter concerning our personal affairs is illegal and constitutes a fundamental violation of our privacy rights
We wish to confirm that we do not consent to the disclosure of our personal information (in whatever form that information may or may not be obtained). We reserve all rights in relation to any loss which may be suffered as a result of the disclosure of illegally obtained personal information. We further wish to confirm that the publication of incorrect information may result in serious and substantial loss and damage and we reserve all rights. Lindsay and Tina McFarlane (sic)
On Sunday The Australian’s Sue Neales told The Northern Myth that she stood by the information provided to her by TFS that the company had acquired an interest in Stylo Station.