The Age: Premier’s office in the loop. Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders
Premier Denis Napthine’s private office and department appear to have played an active role in the transfer of Crown land, and identifying public funds, to assist expansion plans by a wealthy businessman who co-owns a racehorse with the Premier. Advice written for the Premier, and obtained by Fairfax Media, reports on the ”stalled negotiations” over a proposal to sell Crown land to a major Warrnambool food processor, Midfield Meats.
The land sale is a key element of a wider deal that also includes a $1.5 million state grant to Midfield, owned by Warrnambool meat mogul and racing enthusiast Colin McKenna.
The memo, written by Napthine adviser Lisa Downs, indicates that the Department of Premier and Cabinet was involved in the land sale talks. The memo points to the government playing a role finding public funds to help with the Midfield Meat’s expansion.
”The state will look at capital works projects it may be able to assist with, through funding from current programs such as RDV (Regional Development Victoria),” says the memo.
The memo predates Midfield Meats’ formal January application for funding to Regional Development Victoria, which was supported by the Warrnambool Council in a letter on 10 January.
In the memo Ms Downs says she would ”continue to liaise with Midfield Meats to ensure an announcement is organised with your (Premier Napthine’s) involvement (and the Warrnambool City Council) as soon as it is possible”.
In Warrnambool last month, Dr Napthine announced a $1.5 million grant from the Regional Growth Fund to assist the $20 million expansion of McKenna’s meat processing operation, and the creation of 200 jobs. The deal also includes the sale of Crown land currently used as a council works depot.
Premier Napthine, who is also Racing Minister, is in a partnership in a racehorse, Spin the Bottle, with Mr McKenna, as well as being involved in a cancer charity with him. Mr McKenna also appears in Warrnambool Racing Club promotions for a Liberal Party fund-raiser for the Premier this week.
On Monday Premier Napthine angrily denied reports in The Age that he faced conflict of interest questions over the grant and Crown land sale.
His office stressed that the leaked memo was not signed and, therefore, ”would not have been delivered to the Premier”.
His office claimed the memo contained ”errors”, although the errors were not identified in detail.
Government spokesman Mark Lee stressed that despite Midfield’s funding application being submitted in January, Regional Development Victoria as the relevant department had been in discussions with Midfield Meats for some months before the application was lodged.
He confirmed that Premier Napthine as local South West Coast MP had met with with Midfield Meat late in 2013 to discuss the company’s expansion – which he said was after the company had begun talking with RDV.
Mr Lee confirmed that the Department of Premier and Cabinet had briefed the Premier on the proposed expansion, but not been involved in any meetings with Midfield Meats. ”Denis has acted in accordance with department advice at all times,” said Mr Lee, who stressed that the $1.5 million grant was given by the Regional Development Minister Peter Ryan.
The row intensified on Monday when Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said he would call on the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate Dr Napthine’s involvement.
”There are very serious questions here and they need to be answered,” Mr Andrews said. He said the Premier should provide all relevant documents.
Money raised at the Liberal function on Wednesday will be shared with Peter’s Project, a cancer charity founded by Dr Napthine with others, of which Mr McKenna is a director.