VICTORIAN Nationals MP Damian Drum has blasted Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon during a fiery verbal altercation where he accused the senior Labor MP of having lost all credibility with the farm sector, following his treatment of the backpacker tax issue as a “joke”.
Mr Drum – a former coach of the Fremantle Dockers AFL team – tackled Mr Fitzgibbon heavily in reply to his recent speech during a lengthy House of Representatives debate on amendments to the Farm Household Allowance support program.
Mr Drum said following up on Mr Fitzgibbon’s 30 minute speech was “going to be rather difficult because I am not quite sure what to pay any credibility to and what to just dismiss as absolute rubbish”.
“Certainly, the concept of the Labor Party assuming government in this place is, when it comes to agriculture, too scary to even contemplate,” he said.
“To think that we could have as minister the shadow minister for agriculture, who only short couple of months ago was standing at the dispatch box and laughing about the predicament that was the backpacker tax.
“He is someone who thought it was just a bit of a joke.”
The feisty exchange escalated when Mr Drum was asked to validate a claim he made accusing Mr Fitzgibbon of laughing at constituents over the backpacker tax issue which was resolved after a heated debate in the final parliamentary sitting week of 2016.
“I know that I had about 200 orchardists from the Goulburn Valley that told me that they had tried to contact the shadow minister's office to try to get him to see sense,” Mr Drum said.
“They were either hung up on their phones or they were laughed at like the shadow minister.”
In demanding two points of order in response to the accusation, Mr Fitzgibbon said if Mr Drum wanted to make an accusation of that nature, he needed to do so by a “substantive motion”.
“The second point of order is: if he is going to make an accusation like that - which I very much doubt is true - he needs to somehow authenticate it,” he said.
“He just cannot make it up.
“He cannot say people were ringing my office without response without being able to justify that remark in some way.”
But Mr Drum hit back saying the Hunter MP was “complicit in your actions to people who previously used to have some regard for you and your stance on agriculture”.
“However, any credibility that you may have had has now been lost due to your stance and your behaviour throughout the backpacker tax debate in this House,” he said.
“It was quite disgraceful.
“The fact that you thought that such an important issue was such a joke - I think you will stand condemned for that.”
Mr Drum said it seemed that whatever the government was doing, Mr Fitzgibbon “is going to oppose and mock it”.
“But we saw how serious the member for Hunter was when it came to an area such as the backpacker tax, when his behaviour was so disgraceful,” he said.
“There was a real opportunity for him to stand tall and to assist farmers and he just took them as collateral damage to cause the government some embarrassment on the day.”
Mr Drum said the “scariness” of Labor and agriculture didn’t end with the backpacker tax but also moved on to water.
“Certainly, there is a certain shadow minister for water in this House who seems to think that we can still take even more water away from productive agriculture and send it down the river for environmental purposes for South Australia's benefit,” he said.
“When we are trying to look after communities and when we are trying to do the best we can for productive agriculture - and I see the shadow minister has had enough; out he goes.
“The thought that the Labor Party in this place still thinks that you can take an additional 450 gigalitres of water away from productive agriculture to, effectively, keep the Murray Mouth open and to keep lakes at the bottom end of the Murray River system freshwater when naturally they are estuarine lakes, seemingly beggars believe.”
But Mr Fitzgibbon’s speech during the heated debate took a heavy aim at Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce over several controversial issues including accusations of drought policy reform failings.
He also spoke-up about the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) being relocated to Armidale in Mr Joyce’s New England electorate and his sacking of department head Dr Paul Grimes, in early 2015.
“I remind the House that it was the farm household allowance that got the minister for agriculture in a bit of trouble in this place because it was the minister’s attempt to respond to my question about the failings of drought policy and the farm household allowance which caused him to doctor the Hansard,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“In his attempt to embellish the effectiveness of the farm household allowance, he completely misled the House, kept it quiet and doctored his Hansard.
“The rest is history and a very senior, professional and highly regarded public servant lost his job as a result of that very sad saga.
“I am talking, of course, about Dr Grimes, who was the departmental head at that time.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Dr Grimes's “crime” was to take on the minister and question his integrity by asking him - out of respect for his department – to do the right thing, correct his Hansard and take responsibility.
“But the minister decided he would not be taking any responsibility; rather, he moved the secretary of his department on,” he said.
“That is a sad and tragic event in the history of the department of agriculture in this country.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said relocating the APVMA was a “dumb idea” and a pork barrel aimed at trying to help save Mr Joyce’s seat.
“We know the minister struggles in Armidale - we know Tony Windsor beats him there every time,” he said, sparking a retort of “He smashed him” from senior Nationals MP Darren Chester.
Mr Fitzgibbon said “the minister is strong in Tamworth - but he is weak in Armidale”.
“So he is going to use $26 million of taxpayers' money to move an agency to Armidale so he can secure his seat - that is what this is all about,” he said.
“He does not mind destroying the Authority along the way, to the great detriment of farmers and others in this country.
“This is a minister that talks a lot - he loves the spin.
“He sees everything through his own political ambition.
“There is never any substance - it is all spin, no substance.
“The loser, of course, is the Australian agricultural sector.”