John Barilaro, Member for Monaro and Deputy Premier, has been accused of misleading the NSW Parliament over the use of government funds to invest in a south coast oyster farm.
Oyster growers have raised concerns that the investment lacked transparency and posed a potential conflict of interest. Some growers have accused the government of playing favourites over its decision to invest $3.3 million in Australia's Oyster Coast (AOC), claiming the move will distort what is a competitive market.
Chair of the NSW Farmers Federation Oyster Committee Caroline Henry said the investment was “not a good look for the industry”.
“How can the government make informed decisions in an unbiased manner with a company that they actually have part ownership in?” said Ms Henry, who owns and runs an oyster farm on Wonboyn Lake on the state's south coast.
She said one potential conflict arose from the fact the Department of Industry runs the tender process for oyster leases.
Mr Barilaro and Andrew Constance, the Member for Bega who is also Minister for Transport, announced in May that the NSW Government had acquired the $3.3 million equity stake in AOC through its GO NSW Equity Fund.
Mr Barilaro administers that fund, but he repeatedly said the deal was done “at arm’s length from government”.
AOC chair David Trebek, who worked for the federal Liberal Party in the 1980s, told shareholders at the company's annual general meeting in November that the company had reported a net loss of $241,000 during the 2016-17 year.
Labor's primary industries spokesman Mick Veitch said that the government needed to explain why they used taxpayers’ money to buy into an oyster company owned by a senior figure in the Liberal Party.
Mr Barilaro swore under oath nine times to a parliamentary committee that he had nothing to do with the decision to spend $3.3 million on an oyster company. However, documents provided to the opposition under Freedom of Information show Mr Barilaro’s signature on the document.
“By any standard, this is not government at arm’s length,” Mr Veitch said. “This is John Barilaro writing a cheque to give taxpayers’ money to a single oyster company.”
This is not the first time Mr Barilaro has been accused of misleading parliament.
In 2016 he failed to declare that he owned a $2 million property that he rented out on Airbnb for $1700 per night when, as Minister for Tourism, he was involved in discussions regarding the regulation of the collaborative economy. He also failed to declare that the property, near Nerriga, was a conflict of interest when he tabled a petition from Nerriga Road residents regarding the sealing of that road, for which Mr Barilaro received government funding.
Last year Mr Barilaro also failed to declare that he had received a $10,000 donation from former Nationals Member for Monaro, Peter Cochran, who now runs a horse trek company in the Snowy Mountains. Mr Barilaro backflipped on a previous commitment to cull feral horses in the Kosciuszko National Park, but reversed this decision after being lobbied by Mr Cochran.
The Deputy Premier’s office in Sydney has been contacted for comment, but has not responded at time of publication.