Mar 12, 2008

Questions Without Notcie – Regional Partnerships Program

Mr HAYES (3.17 p.m.)— My question is to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. Minister, what is the government’s response to community concerns about fiscal responsibility and the implementation of regional programs?

Mr ALBANESE— I thank the member for Werriwa for the question. Mr Speaker, you would recall that three weeks ago I reported on the government’s commitment to fiscal responsibility and ensuring that the regional programs that we put in place are consistent with that commitment. I referred to this report of what I called ‘the Nationals Audit Office’ into the Regional Partnerships program, which showed that this program had:

… fallen short of an acceptable standard of public administration.

Today I can report that the Nationals’ mismanagement was not confined to just the Regional Partnerships program. In May 2005, the former government gave a $426,962 grant under the Dairy Regional Assistance Program to the Indigo Cheese factory in the electorate of Indi. It was to help them manufacture:

… locally handmade specialty cheeses from locally sourced cow, goat and sheep milk.

Some might say, ‘A worthy cause.’ But it was not to be, because the cheese factory actually shut its doors on 14 March 2007.

But here is the catch: as part of the grant, the former government paid an instalment of $22,135 of taxpayer’s money on 28 June 2007—three months after the factory had closed its doors. I asked my department what the legal advice was on this, and the extraordinary thing is that Indigo Cheese were deemed to have complied with their contractual obligations. Just think about that. The factory shuts in March 2007, but they still get $22,000 of taxpayers’ funds just before the end of the financial year, in June 2007, because, under the contract that they signed, under the former government’s regional arrangements, you could get the money—you did not have to actually produce any cheese. The factory did not have to stay open. It was just like the Gunnedah ethanol plant that did not produce any ethanol. One could have thought, perhaps, that Indigo Cheese might have just been an isolated mistake. But under the Regional Partnerships program an astounding 16 projects were terminated because they failed to get off the ground.

I am not going to inform the House of all 16 projects today. But one of them jumped off the pages at me when I looked at the list, and that was a project appropriate for the National Party: the Tailwaggers Essential Pet Food Pty Ltd project. We know that the National Party tail often wags the Liberal Party dog when it comes to regional programs. We know that the Leader of the Opposition has put his leadership, strong as it is, on the line over the amalgamation of the National Party and the Liberal Party. We know that, if that happens, we will get a two-headed dog. But we also know that Tailwaggers Essential Pet Food will not be providing any food to either of the heads of that dog, because they have not produced one bit of actual food.

When you look at the project, it gets even worse because the project was in Walgett. Walgett was in the seat of the then member for Gwydir, who was the Leader of the National Party and happened to be the minister for regional services at the time that the grant was given.

I am asked if he had a dog—we do not know, but I understand he is supporting the two-headed dog at the moment. In spite of this, the parliamentary secretary thought it was okay to give them $246,477 in approved grants in June 2004. The good thing was that with this particular grant, unlike the previous examples of the cheese factory that did not produce cheese and the Gunnedah ethanol plant that did not actually exist, the money did not actually come forward because after two years of protracted negotiations Tailwaggers were forced to admit that they could not deliver the pet food to either end of the dog.