Hansard stoush brewing for Barnaby

05 Mar, 2015 09:38 AM
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Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
I have stated quite clearly I had no knowledge of the change
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

SIMMERING tensions between Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Agriculture Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes are due to explode at a specially convened Senate estimates hearing in Canberra today.

In what’s being described as a highly unusual and unprecedented move, Dr Grimes wrote to three members of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee requesting the special forum.

The hearing, to be chaired by NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, is expected to focus on clarifying several controversial issues raised at last week’s additional estimates hearings.

Dr Grimes last week defended blame towards his department over allegations around Hansard changes from the Minister’s office, made late last year and a subsequent Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Labor.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has been pursuing Mr Joyce over the Hansard issue, alleging the changes – relating to answers on drought support for farmers - misled the House of Representatives.

Mr Fitzgibbon subsequently made an FOI request designed to reveal an email connected to the Hansard alterations - but that move was subsequently thwarted by the Minister’s office.

Questioning over the FOI rejection by senior NSW Labor Senator Doug Cameron consumed an unusually large portion of last week’s additional Senate estimates hearings.

Senator Cameron was one of three Senators Dr Grimes wrote to requesting today’s special estimates hearings, along with Senator Heffernan and Committee co-chair Western Australian Labor Senator Glenn Sterle.

Senator Sterle and Senator Heffernan both declined to comment ahead of today’s hearing.

No knowledge of changes: Joyce

Last week, Mr Joyce gave a personal explanation, addressing the email issue, during a statement in the House of Representatives.

Asked by the Speaker if he claimed to have been misrepresented, Mr Joyce said, “I do, most grievously”.

“Yesterday the member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon) put out a press release saying, ‘Barnaby Joyce changed the record of an answer he provided on 20 October 2014 on the implementation of his drought package’,” he said.

“This is incorrect and I ask the member for Hunter to retract it.

“I have stated quite clearly I had no knowledge of the change and, once it did become known to me, I asked for it to be changed back.

“He is also looking for a smoking gun, apparently.

“He is digging around, so he has asked the Department for an email between a Mr Craig Croker and a Mr Andrew Henderson,” he said.

“He has asked for it to be tabled, as a smoking gun.

“I table it.”

Strained relations

Relations between Dr Grimes and Mr Joyce are believed to have been strained almost immediately after he was appointed Department boss when his predecessor Andrew Metcalfe was sacked, shortly after the 2013 federal election.

It’s understood Mr Joyce only learned of Mr Metcalfe’s departure after it was announced by Tony Abbott after being sworn in as Prime Minister in September 2013, along with other significant public service changes.

Mr Metcalfe was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship from 2005 until his appointment as head of DAFF in January 2013.

Despite a relatively short period in the role, he had made a strong impression on industry stakeholders and departmental staff.

The Abbott government’s decision to remove Mr Metcalfe was believed to have been based on differences of opinion stemming from his time in the Immigration Department and asylum seeker policy issues, rather than agricultural policy.

Dr Grimes was formerly Secretary of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and is understood to clash with Mr Joyce over key philosophical views, on environmental issues.

Several sources contacted about today’s Senate estimates hearing say the move is unusual and believe it may give Dr Grimes an opportunity to clarify comments made at last week’s estimates hearings, about the FOI process.

But they also expressed uncertainty as to whether he would in fact attend the forum.

The Department declined to comment on the issue when contacted by Fairfax Media, apart from saying departmental officers would be commenting on the public record, at the hearing.

Dr Grimes did not attend his scheduled appearance at the annual ABARES Outlook conference in Canberra earlier this week; believed to have been due to health-related reasons.

Kerrie-Anne Luscombe from the Department’s Office of the General Counsel was also questioned by Senator Cameron about the FOI request, at last week’s estimates hearings.

“You were aware this was an issue, weren't you - that there was a request from the Shadow Minister's office and that Minister Joyce has not dealt with it? Are you aware of that?” Senator Cameron asked.

Ms Luscombe said, “I was aware”.

“I became aware that there was obviously a misunderstanding and, as soon as I became aware of that, that was communicated to the applicant and the FOI request was correctly directed to the minister's office,” she said.

Senator Cameron also asked Parliamentary Secretary to the Agriculture Minister Richard Colbeck if the FOI issue had been finalised in the Minister's office.

He said: “That would be a matter for the Minister's office. I do not manage his office and he does not manage mine”.

“I will have to take it on notice - I am not aware of the procedures within the minister's office.”

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Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media

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