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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 69

Senator MOORE (2:11 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Macdonald, the Minister representing the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Can the minister confirm that the Regional Partnerships program guidelines rule out grants to projects that compete with existing businesses unless it can be demonstrated there is unsatisfied demand for the new product or service, or the product or service is to be provided in some new way? Is it the case that Dairy Farmers is Malanda's largest employer? How was the likely impact on Dairy Farmers' operation at Malanda assessed during the assessment of the A2 Dairy Marketers' Regional Partnerships application? Given that that company went into liquidation three weeks after the $1.26 million grant was announced, how did the application satisfy the department's probity and viability requirements?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —Again, I am surprised that a Labor senator from Queensland would raise the issue of not giving grants to projects that compete with existing private enterprises. I said in answer to Senator McLucas's question that that is exactly what the Labor Party did. The Tjapukai cultural centre is a very efficient, very good tourist attraction in Cairns and North Queensland. It is a private enterprise and attracts a certain clientele. The Labor Party—Senator O'Brien and Senator Lundy—rock in there and ask them if they could use their place to make this major—

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Maybe the minister is struggling today because he has to represent another minister but he is representing the government. He was asked a specific question about a specific grant and whether the guidelines were met, considering that a large amount of taxpayers' money was involved. Could you ask him to be relevant to the question? If he wants to have a blow-out on the Labor Party, there are plenty of other opportunities for him to do so, but this is question time and he ought to be relevant to the question about what happened to taxpayers' money.

The PRESIDENT —The minister has in excess of three minutes to answer the question. I remind him of the question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I do want to get on to the question but it just amazes me that the Labor Party would highlight those sorts of activities when the Labor Party used the venue of a particular facility, by kind permission of those people—I am sure they did not know what the Labor Party were going to announce—to announce that a Labor government would fund something that was in direct competition with the Tjapukai cultural centre. This encouraged that centre, I might say, to issue its first comment, which was that this was a pretty silly sort of policy. I am told it was absolutely the worst policy announcement of the Labor Party in the campaign.

Senator Abetz —No, the forestry one was.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —We will check up.

Senator Chris Evans —On a point of order: I again raise the question of relevance. After you directed him to answer the question, he has now had another minute and he has continued to rave on without bringing himself to answer the question. If question time is to have any relevance, he has to at least try to address the question.

The PRESIDENT —Senator, you know that I cannot direct a minister how to answer a question. I reminded him of the question and I believe that he was coming to giving an answer to that question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I wish that the Leader of the Opposition would not object, because I have been attacked by my colleagues for misleading parliament in saying that that was the worst policy announcement. There is a lot of dispute as to whether it was the gold card or the forestry policy. In relation to the application for A2, the application was not progressed by the department as it did come to light that the company was in financial difficulty at the end of September. The application went through the normal due diligence assessment and the advice received by the department was that the new entity would not be viable. Subsequently, the A2 Dairy Marketers went into voluntary liquidation. It does show that the process works. The department always conduct the appropriate due diligence assessments and, in the course of that, certain things came to light.

Senator MOORE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister further confirm that the government was aware of pending court action against the A2 Dairy Marketers when it awarded the company the $1.26 million on 9 September this year? If so, why did the government approve the grant before the outcome of the legal action against the company was known? Can the minister confirm that the company is now in receivership? I believe he did in his original answer. Is the assessment of the A2 Dairy Marketers grant an example of the `independent and rigorous' assessment to which he told the Senate on Monday that all Regional Partnerships applications are subject?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) —I can assure the senator that the government's processes are far better than those employed by the Labor Party with Ros Kelly. You remember the whiteboard? Mrs Kelly used to give away grants in the Labor government by writing on the whiteboard which Labor seat wanted some money. That was their assessment process. That is how the Labor Party did it. It was not done by their departments but done on a whiteboard in the minister's office. I remember the way we had to drag that out of them at estimates committees to get the real truth. The coalition does not work that way. The department conducted due diligence tests and came to a conclusion as a result of that, and I think that demonstrates that the processes put in place do actually work.