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Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Page: 8240

Dr STONE (Murray) (21:30): I rise to speak on a matter of great concern to food and fibre producers in the Murray-Darling Basin. While the Gillard government is hell-bent on the false economy of buying water off financially stressed irrigators through tenders, removing it from food production use for all time, the coalition, the water authorities, state government agencies and the communities in the basin understand that the most cost-effective and nation-building thing to do is invest in on-farm irrigation system water use efficiency measures. There is, however, a remnant of the coalition's $10 billion 10-point national water plan funding that the Gillard government has allowed to be used for on-farm water use efficiency measures. The first round was delivered a little while ago and the second round of this funding, some $150 million, was announced by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, on 7 July this year.

You can imagine the basin community's shock and derision when they saw, amongst the list of nine successful delivery partners to receive a share of the $150 million, a brand new company called Irrigation Efficiency Partners Pty Ltd, with a registered address in a private house in Lavington. This bid received the second highest grant amount: $32,291,000. Successful delivery partners applicants are supposed to supply three years of annual reports and audited financial statements of their business activity for the last three full financial years. But this new company only became registered with an ABN on 21 March 2011, a mere 10 days before the closing date for applications. As well, the directors and shareholders include companies and organisations that appear to me to contravene the quite clear and specific guidelines about who is and is not eligible to become a delivery partner. On page 8 of the guidelines for the on-farm irrigation efficiency program, round 2, it says organisations cannot be delivery partners if, for example, they are 'organisations which directly supply or install irrigation equipment'. The trouble is that, while that is quite clearly stated on page 8 of the eligibility criteria, there is also another government document, the DSEWPC document called 'On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program Questions and Answers', which sets out on page 3 who is not eligible to submit an application as a delivery partner. It says that where an organisation does supply or install irrigation equipment, they are still eligible to apply as a potential delivery provided:

(a) The equipment supplied does not form part of a proposed project type, or

(b) … if the equipment supplied or installed does not form part of the proposed project type then Australia Government funding will not be sought for that equipment supplied or installed with the relevant cost met as part or in kind cash contribution of the applicant.

I am concerned about this because listed as a director and shareholder of the brand new Irrigation Efficiency Partners is Centre Irrigation Pty Ltd of Ballarat, which claims on its website to supply the best mechanised irrigation systems in the world, including centre pivots tailor-made to an irrigation system. I understand that Irrigation Efficiency Partners is approaching farmers to install centre pivots on their properties with the grant given to them of some $32 million. On these properties the equipment is to be supplied by Centre Irrigation Pty Ltd of Ballarat. To me that seems in clear contravention of the criteria, depending on which bit you read, but I am afraid it is spelled out in the government agency document. It does not sound like the equipment is going to be a gift from the delivery partner either. So what is going on?

I have not yet mentioned that there are three former Labor MPs who are shareholders of Sustainable Soils and Farms Pty Ltd, which in turn is a shareholder of the delivery partner Irrigation Efficiency Partners Pty Ltd. These three former Labor MPs are Mr Neil O'Keefe, who is a director of Water for Rivers, Mr Gavan O'Connor and Mr Bob Sercombe. The Victorian minister for water, Peter Walsh, has already called on Mr O'Keefe to assure him that he has no conflict of interest with the various hats he tends to wear, for the previous Victorian Labor government and now the federal Labor government. I think this is a very serious matter. I have written to the minister about it. He says the job is right, there is no real problem. I think there is a problem. The $32 million needs to go to an organisation which will deliver on-ground water use efficiency measures. Our irrigators and food and fibre producers must have this money spent wisely by organisations that are playing by the rules and money must be given out conscionably by government.