Transcript - ABC News 24 - Wednesday 22 November 2017

SUBJECTS: Gina Rinehart’s $40K agriculture award to Barnaby Joyce


HOST: Former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is being accused of unethical conduct for receiving a $40,000 prize from his billionaire friend Gina Rinehart. Mr Joyce has since declined the money, which was awarded for his part in promoting Australian farming. But Labor's Agriculture spokesman has been telling Greg Jennett that should not be the end of the matter.

JENNETT:  Joel Fitzgibbon, you, I think, received an invitation to Gina Rinehart's National Agriculture Day awards night here in Canberra. Why didn't you attend, first of all?

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA:  Well, I did receive an invitation to pay to attend the dinner. It seems Barnaby Joyce received one to receive $40,000 at the dinner. He should have been engaging in the debate in his electorate where he is facing, of course, a by-election. All the other candidates were there. Instead, he was in Canberra at a glitzy black-tie dinner receiving what is effectively a donation, a donation he should never have accepted.

JENNETT:  Is it possible for a minister in that situation to know in advance they might be the recipient of a prize? Is it possible he may not have known?

FITZGIBBON:  It's inconceivable that Barnaby Joyce didn't know he would be awarded the $40,000 last night. Therefore, he had every opportunity to reflect on the idea and announce immediately that he was either not accepting the donation or inviting Gina Rinehart to direct it to a worthy charity or, indeed, a more worthy recipient. 

JENNETT:  He is a private citizen at present, hoping to make a re-entry into the parliament, does that alter his status when it comes to the receipt of these large amounts of money?

FITZGIBBON:  This gift fails a whole range of tests, including the most basic test around ethics. He is fighting an expensive by-election. He is fighting against 16 other candidates. It's very, very clear that this money would have been directed to Barnaby Joyce's campaign in New England. It's just as clear that he knew this money was coming and he had every opportunity to pass up the opportunity.

JENNETT:  Just to be clear. He has, since last night, said that he is doing exactly that, he is passing up or declining is the term that his office is using, this payment. Does that wipe the board clear? Is that the end of the matter from your point of view?

FITZGIBBON:  No, you can't tidy up the crime after the event. He clearly knew this money was coming. He would have understood that there were many, many more worthy recipients, so many people, entrepreneurs and formers, innovators in the agriculture sector, who were more deserving than a minister who gets paid to do his job. He had every opportunity to pass it up. He didn't. He clearly intended to take the money and run. I think you can absolutely assume that the money would have gone largely to his by-election campaign. This is absolutely unethical and it really does also fail the dumb test.

JENNETT:  I think you've also raised some questions about the department, the Agriculture Department's involvement in the initiative in the broad. I think not the award itself but the Agriculture Day. What are you suggesting the department may have done that was wrong in regards to this?

FITZGIBBON:  Malcolm Turnbull is the Agriculture Minister as we speak. This was an event which was sponsored, in part, by the Agriculture Department. I want to know what links, if any, there are between the contribution of the department and the money that went to Barnaby Joyce. Indeed, I’d like to know where all the money went to last night. Some of those corporate tables were $10,000 per head. There might be a very good explanation behind all of that but this is all shrouded in secrecy. I think the Prime Minister should be answering questions today. He needs to do it really quickly.

JENNETT:  You, if you had attended, would have been expected to chip in - what are you saying? - $10,000?

FITZGIBBON:  I think my ticket cost was about $140 but that wasn't the point. It was a non-sitting week in Canberra. I was busy in my electorate, as Barnaby Joyce should have been busy. He could have been at that candidates' debate. He is refusing to participate in any of the candidates' debates in New England. He says there are too many blow-ins. I remind Barnaby Joyce when he contested New England in 2013, he was living in St George in Queensland. He was himself, at that point in time, a blow-in.

JENNETT:  Because he is declining the money, is it your view that there is nothing to declare, this doesn't need to be placed on any register, be it the Electoral Commission or pecuniary interests here in Canberra? Does it need to be declared even though it wasn't received?

FITZGIBBON:  You don't escape punishment for a bank robbery by giving the money back. That Gina Rinehart cheque has Barnaby Joyce's fingerprints all over it. He made it very clear at the dinner last night he was accepting it. He even suggested he'd spend the money on his farm. Whether he was being a little bit light-hearted about that, I don't know, but he'd have known that money was coming in advance. Even if he hadn't, anyone with any credibility and any intelligence at all could have quickly, on their feet, suggested this is not appropriate, they could have expressed their gratefulness but they could have said very, very quickly, "Look, I can't accept this, take it back or give it to someone more worthy or a charity. " You can't walk away from a crime now. Malcolm Turnbull needs to answer some questions and needs to do it very quickly.

JENNETT:  Let's see where this leads us. Thank you for now.

FITZGIBBON:  A great pleasure.

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