ACCUSATIONS of pork-barrelling have erupted over the Coalition government’s delivery of a $13.8 million federal program to try and enhance farmers’ collective bargaining powers in agricultural supply chains.
The Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper - released in July last year - announced the $13.8m for a two-year pilot program to help educate farmers on co-operatives and other structural models to help them capture greater supply chain value.
But during Senate estimates this week, Labor attacked the government for “deviating” from its original plan in a move they say aims to deliver political benefits for the Page electorate held by first-term National Party MP Kevin Hogan.
Mr Hogan won the seat off Labor’s Janelle Saffin at the 2013 federal election but holds it by a vulnerable 2.5 per cent margin and will face her again at the federal poll due later this year.
Last September, Labor leader Bill Shorten set the battle-lines for a fiery contest when he headed the party’s first ever National Country Forum held at the beef producing centre of Casino, in the northern-NSW electorate.
During a niggling Senate estimates session, Labor powerbroker Doug Cameron examined changes to the White Paper’s $13.8m co-operatives agenda that he believes amount to pork-barrelling in Mr Hogan’s electorate.
After the White Paper’s release, the Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC) was commissioned by the Agriculture Department to undertake a scoping study – via a $200,000 grant – on a draft pilot program.
RIRDC Chair Craig Burns told Senate estimates the $200,000 was spent on a literature review and targeted consultations, including a roundtable meeting with stakeholders and experts held in Canberra, last August.
Mr Burns said that work formed the basis of the draft pilot program the RIRDC then presented to the Department and “to a large extent that’s where our involvement has ceased”.
In October last year, Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce appointed Mr Hogan to head-up a taskforce that investigated the White Paper funding allocation.
The minister has now been presented with an options paper.
But Senior Department official Paul Morris – who was intricately involved in the White Paper’s formulation - told the estimates hearing a proposal was “on the table at the moment” that involved program delivery from an institution in “that area” (Mr Hogan’s electorate).
Department Secretary Daryl Quinlivan said no announcement had been made on how the money would be spent but stressed it would be a national program that wasn’t focussed on any single area.
Mr Quinlivan said the Department also provided information, advice and organisational assistance to Mr Hogan but did not write a report for him.
Senator Cameron said a government backbencher’s involvement in the process was a “big deviation” from the White Paper’s original announcement, involving the RIRDC.
He told media he was “certainly not happy” with answers he received during the hearing on how the co-ops program was now being handled.
“What is clear is that Barnaby Joyce is now ignoring the White Paper,” he said.
“He’s off on his own little peccadillos about what he would do with that $14m and it’s looking like as if it will end up in the seat of Page for the local member to expend as part of their election campaign up there.
“This is an absolutely ridiculous proposition and the minister is all at sea.”
Mr Hogan’s office re-directed questions to Mr Joyce who defended the program and Mr Hogan’s involvement, at a media conference.
“God forbid that we’d actually look at options before we went forward with delivering a policy,” he said.
Mr Joyce denied the pork barrelling accusations and said no promise or final decision had been made of how any money would be spent, “But we are looking at options because that’s what a prudent government does”.
“I want to make sure that this co-operative venture goes forward because I believe the further a farmer can reach down the supply chain the better return he gets or she gets,” he said.
“This is one thing that has been hard to fight for but we got it and I want to make sure it succeeds and having someone like Kevin Hogan a trained economist and a person with great experience in the economics field assisting with in this, what can be wrong with that?”
Mr Joyce said he was “absolutely proud” of Mr Hogan’s work on developing the new program given the Page electorate contained various co-ops including for dairy, sugar and meat processing.
A Department spokesperson said the new program’s design was now being finalised, with an announcement expected in the first half of 2016.
“The design phase was extended to fully draw on the experience of farmers and farming groups,” a statement said.
“These two processes were complementary, with Mr Hogan MP drawing from RIRDC’s proposal when undertaking industry consultations and also meeting with the department and RIRDC.
“The RIRDC report and Mr Hogan MP’s findings were intended to assist in the design of the pilot program, not to be standalone public documents.”