Victorian Opposition leader Daniel Andrews will call on the state’s corruption watchdog to investigate Premier Denis Napthine over a $1.5 million government grant and land sale to a leading Warrnambool business and racing figure with whom the premier co-owns a thoroughbred racehorse.
Premier Napthine has denied any conflicts of interest over the grant from the government’s $1 billion Regional Growth Fund.
The call for an IBAC probe follows Fairfax Media revelations that Premier Napthine is in partnership in the racehorse Spin the Bottle with Colin McKenna, the head of expanding meat processor the Midfield Group, a major employer in the premier’s South-West Coast electorate.
Mr Andrews is planning to write to the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission highlighting possible conflicts of interest for the Premier over his relationship with Mr McKenna, who is a committee member at the Premier’s beloved Warrnambool Racing Club, which hosts its annual carnival this week.
The opposition leader said IBAC needs to ‘‘look at this in full’’.
‘‘There are very serious questions here and they need to be answered,’’ Mr Andrews told ABC 774 Mornings.
‘‘If it’s all above board, if there’s nothing to fear, well then the Premier should have no trouble handing over all records, all communications,’’ he said.
‘‘And he ought to establish, not just say, but actually establish that he had no involvement at all in the granting of $1.5 million to not only his mate but someone he owns a racehorse with.’’
On Monday morning Premier Napthine angrily denied any conflict of interest, stressing that the grant decision was made by regional development minister Peter Ryan after a recommendation by his department.
Premier Napthine said the decision was made with the endorsement of the Warrnambool City Council.
‘‘I was not involved in the processing of endorsing or approving that grant.’’
The Premier also noted that the former Brumby Labor government had also made grants to Midfield.
And he said that when he bought his share in Spin the Bottle he did not know who the other part-owners were.
Premier Napthine owns a share of Spin the Bottle in his own name. Mr McKenna’s share is in the name of Halo Racing Services Pty Ltd. Halo is fully owned by Mr McKenna’s CB McKenna Investments Pty Ltd.
But the grant to Midfield, and the Premier’s connections to Mr McKenna, also raise uncomfortable questions about the rationale for hand-outs to business – especially cashed-up ones – through the government’s $1 billion Regional Growth Fund.
In Warrnambool last month, Dr Napthine announced a $1.5 million grant from the fund to assist the $20 million expansion of McKenna’s meat processing operation, and the creation of 200 jobs, in the regional city.
The government’s deal with Midfield also includes the sale of Crown land to the company for construction of a new cold store.‘‘This is a win for the region, it is a great result for Colin McKenna and his team,’’ Dr Napthine said at the time.
Last week, the Premier sparked controversy with his public support – at odds with state racing authorities – for Sydney bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse’s bid to work the ’’rails’’ betting ring at the annual Warrnambool Carnival this week.
A political row followed the revelation that Waterhouse’s wife, trainer Gai, was scheduled to join Premier Napthine as the drawcard to this week’s Liberal Party fund-raiser. Mr McKenna also features in club promotions for the fund-raiser at the Warrnambool track on Wednesday evening.
Ms Waterhouse trains at least one of numerous racehorses owned or part-owned by Mr McKenna.
Money raised at the Liberal party function on Wednesday will be shared with Peter’s Project, a local cancer treatment charity founded by Dr Napthine with others, of which Mr McKenna is a director.
Mr McKenna is one of the south-west’s wealthiest men and biggest employers.
His Midfield Meats business, which received the government grant, is in a robust financial position. Accounts filed with the corporate regulator show it had revenue of $356 million last financial year while profit more than doubled.
Mr McKenna, who owns a private jet, also paid himself a dividend of more than $1 million as cash flow quadrupled to $23.5 million.
He is also a dairy farmer and major landowner with nearly 6500 hectares around Warrnambool, including the historic Union Station and homestead.
Mr McKenna sent his jet to collect the Waterhouses from Avalon airport and fly them back to the Warrnambool racing carnival.
On Sunday Premier Napthine refused to answer when asked whether Mr McKenna had donated to the Liberal Party or to his own local election campaigns, referring questions about donations to Liberal Party headquarters.
Midfield applied for the grant with the backing of the Warrnambool council.
Asked why taxpayer funds were given to a successful and expanding business, spokesman Mr Lee said the grant was consistent with government policy to support growing food enterprises.
Last week Premier Napthine also defended his decision to spruik the cause of bookmaker Waterhouse, dismissing claims there was a link between his comments and Ms Waterhouse’s appearance at the Liberal fund-raiser on April 30.
He argued that the bookmaker’s presence at the carnival would help boost attendance.