PREMIER Denis Napthine has hit back over allegations of favouritism extended towards Warrnambool’s Midfield Meat, labelling it “smear and innuendo”.
In a frank interview with The Standard yesterday, Dr Napthine criticised The Age for a front-page report suggesting a conflict of interest over a $1.5 million state grant to Midfield, given he co-owns a racehorse in a syndicate with proprietor Colin McKenna.
The South West Coast MP and racing minister owns a stake in thoroughbred Spin the Bottle, together with a number of south-west figures including Mr McKenna and Wannon MP Dan Tehan.
“I was disgusted with what I read in The Age — I thought it was an appalling piece of journalism,” Dr Napthine said.
“Especially when the journalist involved was advised by my office that the process was dealt with in its entirity by the Regional Development Minister (Peter Ryan) and at absolute arm’s length.
“It’s extremely disappointing that these journalists have chosen a path of smear and innuendo.”
Dr Napthine said the newspaper, which is owned by Fairfax Media, publishers of The Standard, owed Mr McKenna an apology. Warrnambool City Council formally backed Mr McKenna’s bid for the $1.5 million grant which Dr Napthine said was then independently assessed by regional development bureaucrats before being officially announced last month.
The seven-figure grant will be channelled into a $20 million expansion of the Warrnambool abattoir with the company planning to expand into milk powder production.
Dr Napthine was at pains to point out that the Brumby Labor government allocated two considerable grants to Midfield Meat — $990,000 in 2009 and $295,000 the year before. “The Brumby government recognised the jobs created and the economic opportunities presented (through Midfield),” he said.
Dr Napthine also rejected allegations by Labor Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews on ABC radio yesterday that he was “best mates” with Mr McKenna.
He said the association was not friendship as inferred, merely on an acquaintance basis between local MP and resident businessman.
Dr Napthine said his interest in Spin the Bottle had been properly declared on the pecuniary interests register for MPs.
“I’ve never been to Colin McKenna’s house nor has he been to my house — never,” Dr Napthine said. “I wouldn’t call that a friendship.
“I know Colin as a local member, given that I’ve been a local member for 25 years and also as Racing Minister, given he is a key part of the Warrnambool Racing Club,” he said.
Mr McKenna declined to comment on the matter yesterday.
The report comes after last week’s fallout from Racing Victoria’s decision to keep bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse from operating on the rails at the Warrnambool May Racing Carnival, which starts today.
Dr Napthine advocated for the decision to be reversed, encountering criticism due to wife Gai Waterhouse’s star role at a Liberal Party fund-raiser at Warrnambool racecourse tomorrow evening.