SHEEP and wool industry leaders have called for continued focus on agricultural restructure, drought and bushfire recovery, and trade deals, following the resignation of Nationals deputy leader and Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie.
Senator McKenzie was forced to resign from Federal Cabinet’s front bench and from her ministerial position after it was found she breached ministerial standards in the allocation of sports grants.
Ms McKenzie served as the Minister for Sport for about 18 months up to May last year and her resignation was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday.
Sheep Producers disappointed with McKenzie’s departure
Sheep Producers of Australia chief executive officer Stephen Crisp said the peak producer body worked well with Minister McKenzie, and is disappointed with her resignation “from the viewpoint of continuity”.
“Industry has been dealing with the minister on bushfires and drought, as well as reviewing the structure of the red meat industry.
“Having said that, the minister was working closely with (Nationals leader) Michael McCormack and David Littleproud, as well as the Department of Agriculture on all these issues, and we are sure whoever takes over the portfolio will have the support they need,” he said.
Mr Crisp said there are trade issues that will be developing quickly with both the European Union and United Kingdom ramping up engagement post-Brexit, but fortunately the Trade Minister and the Depoartment of Foreign Affairs and Trade are well-briefed on the requirements of the sheep sector.
“The major issue will be supporting the whole sheep supply chain through the remainder of the drought, and when the drought breaks.
“There will be serious supply issues which will require some understanding from government to ensure there is some support to enable to retention of people and infrastructure in the sheep industry,” he said.
“SPA looks forward to working with the new minister, who we hope will continue the high level engagement – working in with industry through the revision of the Red Meat Memorandum of Understanding, and the options being examined with the Research and Development Corporations.
“We expect the new minister will continue to advocate for sheep meat in the trade negotiations, as well as provide the targeted assistance producers need to bounce back from drought and bushfires.”
WoolProducers leader seeks overall industry review strategy
WoolProducers Australia president Ed Storey said WPA wanted to finalise Australian Wool Innovation’s implementation of the 82 recommendation of the 2018 AWI performance and governance review by Ernst Young. He expected to be able to do that this year, possibly in the first half, with or without ministerial help.
Mr Storey said there was also the RDC Review, the Red Meat MOU Review and the re-negotiation of AWI’s Statutory Funding Agreement with the Federal Government to consider.
“There are lots of reviews and we pay a lot of levies in Australia.
“It’s important in all these reviews that the Minister for Agriculture is cognisant of the interaction between all the different reviews and that there is an over-arching strategy in place, so we don’t have reviews contradicting each other and different reviews making different recommendations,” he said.
“We want a system that drives innovation and outcomes, in our industry for particularly wool growers.
“But more broadly across the agricultural sector, we need the RDC system and levy structure to work in the best interests of growers,” Mr Storey said.
“So it is important that all these reviews …. come together and we get a clear picture of what the changes will be and how they are going to work.
“Whatever system we end up with has absolutely got to be in the best interests of levy payers.”
He said the peak grower body had enjoyed a constructive relationship with Ms McKenzie’s office on behalf of wool growers.
“We wish her well and we look forward to working constructively with whoever the new minister is.”
More acknowledgement of agriculture’s importance needed
More broadly, Mr Storey said there is a lack of confidence in the world economy at the moment, but he wanted acknowledgment of agriculture’s importance as a key to a sustainable Australia.
“The agricultural income that this company earns and produces outside of the major cities is a key to the future sustainability of Australia.
“It is important that the Agriculture Minister is taken very seriously by government and that that minister plays a key role in government across a broader range than just agriculture,” he said.
“It’s important that that’s a senior position in Cabinet and taken very seriously by the government.”
Despite two Ministers for Agriculture urging AWI to fully implement the EY Review recommendations over the past two years – David Littleproud preceded Ms McKenzie in the role – Mr Storey is confident it would be achieved this year.
“I have faith that the industry will resolve this in the first half of this year.
“The 10-year (AWI director) tenure is really the last contentious one.”
As Australia’s wool market suffered from uncertainty due to major customer China’s coronarvirus outbreak, Mr Storey supported the Australian government helping China limit the disease’s human impact, which would help the country regain normal wool processing capability.
Review finds McKenzie breached ministerial standards – Morrison
Mr Morrison announced Ms McKenzie’s resignation on the basis she had breached ministerial standards by failing to disclose her membership of a gun club that was awarded a grant while she was Sports Minister.
“On the basis of that, and that is the conflict of interest and the failure to disclose, the minister has tended her resignation to me this afternoon.”
Mr Morrison said Minister McKenzie has shown “a great respect for the statement of standards.”
“She has honoured that statement of standards in the decision she has taken today, by offering her resignation to me this afternoon.”
Mr Morrison made the announcement after receiving a review into Ms McKenzie’s conduct by the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Philip Gaetjens. The internal review followed an Auditor’s General report that found Ms Mckenzie’s office ignored merit-based assessments by Sports Australia, while funding grant projects from marginal or ‘targeted’ electorates before the 2019 election.
However, Mr Morrison said Mr Gaetjens found no evidence that policial considerations were the primary determining factor in sports grant approvals.
“While there may be differing views about the fairness of the process, the Minister used the discretion she was afforded.
“Accordingly the secretary concludes: ‘I do not believe that there is a basis for you to find that the Minister had breached standards in that respect.’
“He goes on to note that he did not find evidence that this process was unduly influenced by referenced to marginal or targetted e4lectorates, and he notes the data indicates that applications from marginal or targetted seats were approved by the Minister at a statistically similar ratio of 32 percent compared to applications from other electorates at 36pc.”
Ms McKenzie today admitted her breach of ministerial standards was clear.
“I should have declared those memberships in a more timely fashion.”
But Ms McKenzie said she he did not accept her membership of certain sports shooting clubs represented a conflict of interest.
“I received no personal benefit, they did not inform my decision-making at all.”
She said the Prime Minister’s department’s report “confirmed that ministerial discretion was exercised in an appropriate manner, that there was no political bias in my decision-making.”
However, federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese has continued to attack the government, seeking further details on the role of the office of the Prime Minister in the sports grant funding saga, including the release of Mr Gaetjens’ review report.
Mr McCormack indicated to the ABC that the deputy position would be discussed at a party room meeting tomorrow and said he would act as Minister for Agriculture until a replacement was found.