ALLEGATIONS that Premier Denis Napthine had a conflict of interest in a proposed $20 million expansion of Midfield Meat have been torpedoed by Warrnambool’s chief executive Bruce Anson.
After stories by The Age this week questioning a $1.5m Regional Development Victoria grant for Midfield and proposed sale of Crown land for the business, Mr Anson said negotiations over the planned expansion dated back to 2002.
He revealed that in 2003 the former Bracks Labor government had given in-principle approval for Crown land adjoining the meatworks to be sold to the council which would sell it to Midfield for expansion.
However, at that time Midfield could not give certainty on when it would purchase the land if the council obtained title, thus the land transfer was shelved.
The Age stories linked Dr Napthine with Midfield managing director Colin McKenna as co-members of a racehorse ownership syndicate and as key figures in the Peter’s Project cancer centre fund-raising initiative.
“The process now may appear to be rushed, but in reality it has been going on for some time,” Mr Anson said.
“I totally deny any accusations that this is being pushed on us.
“The urgency is that the Midfield group is now in a position where it is ready to invest and needs the land title to proceed.”
The Standard understands council would have to pay more than $1 million for the one hectare of Crown land in Scott Street and then sell it to Midfield at an advanced figure with proceeds used to modify the council’s adjoining depot.
One objection was lodged after the council last month advertised its intention to apply for title transfer.
Mr Anson said a sale agreement was likely to be signed by the council in a few weeks and the government was still undertaking an extensive approvals process.
“Our memorandum of understanding with Midfield is that if the state government and city council approval processes are successful the purchase would take place,” he said. “There would be an exchange of purchase and sale finance on the same day.
“There are extensive checks and balances in the approval process.
“Although it is a slight inconvenience to us to realign our depot boundary, the opportunity to have a $20m investment and creation of 200 jobs is not to be missed.”
Dr Napthine visited Midfield in March to announce the $1.5m state grant which he said would help the company build a $15m cold storage plant opposite the main site, improve refrigeration and improve the Levys Point rendering plant.
He also announced Midfield planned to diversify by building a dairy processing plant on the Crown land.
Both projects would create about 200 new jobs, he said.
Mr McKenna and Midfield are no strangers to acquiring Crown land for its operations.
In 1988 the company purchased the abattoir for about $1.5m from the city council which had owned and operated it for decades.
Then in 1999 the company bought an adjoining half-hectare section on Scott Street for about $45,000 through a title transfer from the state government.
It also leased another adjoining half-hectare portion of Crown land to accommodate expansion of for its export processing facilities.
Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews has called for the state’s anti-corruption watchdog to investigate.
Mr McKenna yesterday declined to comment.