BARNABY Joyce says he’s moving to immediately cancel a $40,000 award given to him by mining and agricultural magnate Gina Rinehart at a gala dinner in Canberra last night.
The former Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister took time out from his New England by-election campaign to attend the event held at the Australian War Memorial which capped off the inaugural National Agriculture Day celebrations that Ms Rinehart has spearheaded.
But an award presented to Mr Joyce at the end of the night acknowledged his contribution to the national farm sector – but it came as a shock to the Nationals leader and many of the assembled guests.
It is not known who the judging panel were but Ms Rinehart listed various criteria including leadership for the sector having earlier described Mr Joyce as a “champion” of agriculture.
“Has anyone actually considered the optics of this $40,000 award being presented to a politician,” one attendee said.
“What a PR disaster for Australian agriculture - but nobody looked more shocked the Barnaby when the cheque was handed to him.”
National Farmers’ Federation President Fiona Simson – whose group was also involved in the Ag Day event’s organisation - was on stage for the presentation to Mr Joyce.
But she and the NFF have since moved quickly to distance the peak national farming body from the $40,000 award, as criticism also erupted on social media.
But Mr Joyce told Fairfax Agricultural Media he was now looking to find a way out of the controversy.
“Although I was very humbled by the award – quite obviously, my intentions is I will be donating the money straight back hopefully to the support of the same function next year,” he said.
“I have no intentions of cashing the cheque and have every intention of having it cancelled and the Hancocks can do with it as they wish.
“I’m in the process right now of getting the cheque cancelled and getting confirmation of that.”
Mr Joyce also denied the $40,000 cheque presentation had soured the Ag Day celebration saying the award presentation was “just an oversight”.
“It was a great night and it was going really, really well with the tambourines and all that stuff before they handed me a cheque for $40,000,” he said.
“I was bush wacked and my job then was to get out of that room as quick as possible and I’ve spent working out this morning how to cancel it.
Political reaction was also swift with sharp comments from Opposition leader Bill Shorten and Mr Joyce’s political sparring partner in Canberra – Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.
“Barnaby Joyce, what on earth are you doing accepting $40,000?” Mr Shorten said.
“And I have to say, why is a mining millionaire giving a Turnbull government minister a $40 ,000 cash present?
“This is very unhealthy for our democracy.
“It's not right.
“It doesn't look right, it doesn't smell right.
“This is very, very unusual and concerning conduct.”
NFF CEO Tony Mahar said he had no idea and no interest in who judged the award underpinning the presentation of a $40,000 cheque to Mr Joyce.
“It was not anything we knew of or would ever support,” he said.
“Ag Day was a really positive day and initiative aimed at the entire industry - the support and engagement that was demonstrated was amazing.
“I'll remain focussed on that and not any individual awards or antics.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Ms Rinehart's $40,000 cash “award” to Barnaby Joyce last night “raises many questions”.
“National Agriculture Day was a Gina Rinehart initiative and we were told it was all about recognising our farmers and the farm sector - we now find it was the festival of Barnaby,” he said.
“Gina’s Agriculture Award could have gone to many people in agriculture - our innovative farmers, entrepreneurs, scientists, environmentalists and those who add value to our products.
“But no, it went to Barnaby Joyce who is facing an expensive by-election in New England.
“Labor notes the National Farmers’ Federation - a sponsor - has distanced itself from the award.
“I also note the Department of Agriculture was a sponsor of last night’s glitzy dinner.
“Labor understands Joyce is now saying he will donate the money to an agricultural charity.
“Last night he told those assembled at the dinner he would spend it on his farm.
“Malcolm Turnbull must clarify the situation.”
But NFF said through a spokesperson that the Department didn’t pay for any part of the dinner and their sponsorship was solely for the NFF’s efforts which was separate to the dinner.