Beefed-up grant raises eyebrows in New England
Tony Windsor is more than just the powerbroker who, with two other independents, delivered the government of Julia Gillard the numbers to stay in power. He is also a dab hand at winning grants.
The former member for New England helped tee up a $23 million government grant for an abattoir in Inverell run by his constituent, the meat industry patriarch John "JR" McDonald.
Windsor's former political advisor, John Clements, is now lobbying the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for another $23 million to match the abattoir grant. The grant was made by the Department of Industry in July - before the change of government - to the McDonald family's Bindaree Beef meatworks to finance a project to turn bio-waste into clean energy.
Company searches show that, after the election, Clements and Windsor registered the company National Grain Marketing Pty Ltd. Clements now works with Bindaree.
Clements said on Friday he "had no idea Tony wasn't running" (for Parliament again) until two weeks before he announced the grant in July.
"There was no job offer from Bindaree or ever any discussions until well after Tony announced he would not stand. The project was funded before Tony announced he would not stand," Clements said.
Windsor said on Friday he had no commercial arrangement with Bindaree and was not a beneficiary of the grant, and BusinessDay is not suggesting he was.
Tony Windsor and John Clements registered National Grain Marketing on October 8. Its office is Level 3, 201 Marius Street, Tamworth - also the office of accounting firm Forsyths.
Forsyths boasts significant expertise in winning grants. It offers advice on how to access no less than 517 government grants.
Besides Clements and Windsor, National Grain Marketing lists Brian Peadon and Stephen Hall as directors. Hall is a liquidator and principal of Forsyths. He declined to respond to questions but is understood to have been involved in the Bindaree grant process.
The shareholders of National Grain Marketing are Windsor's company Cintra Investments, Clements' company Reterpol, the Dr Toni Medcalf Foundation, Peadon and another company, Lumberah Pty Ltd.
Searches show Clements' company Reterpol is also registered at the Marius Street address. Its other directors include Tamworth businessman Peter Pulley and Clements' wife, Charmaine. It lists as a shareholder Creative Economic Solutions Pty Ltd.
The shareholders of Creative Economic Solutions are Peter Pulley and Dewgloss Pty Ltd, whose directors and shareholders include Peter Pulley, Kenneth Pulley and Michael Cowley.
The other shareholder in National Grain Marketing, Lumberah, lists Forsyths' principal Hall and his wife, Helen, as directors.
There is no suggestion here that Windsor or Clements have done anything untoward in winning a grant, then setting up a company together.
The Bindaree saga does warrant some inspection though. For one, the sheer size of the grant sticks out like a sore thumb when compared with other industry hand-outs.
Then there is the issue of transparency. Neither the department, nor Clements, nor the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, nor Forsyths - the Tamworth accounting firm that assisted in winning the grant - were able to furnish a copy of the grant submission. "Commercial in confidence" was the line.
A spokeswoman for the department described the grant as "discretionary" and emphasised it had been struck by the previous government. Asked to explain the word "discretionary", she said this meant "a one-off or ad hoc grant [which] generally does not involve planned selection processes and is designed to meet a specific need, often due to urgency or other circumstances".
Both the submissions and the funding arrangements were "commercial in confidence". The Bindaree grant was made "at the request of the then government, the [then] member for New England was briefed on the grant application and about the decision to award the grant".
Windsor talked enthusiastically about the Bindaree project this week. He said that while rival abattoirs had achieved far less in government hand-outs, their carbon programs were far less worthy than the Bindaree biodigester project. It was a unique proposal. Hence the size of the grant.
"The other abattoirs just wanted to get below the carbon tax threshold. Bindaree gets CO2 emissions down, it takes care of the waste product and it ring-fences the company's energy costs."
Windsor said he had lobbied then industry minister Greg Combet to get the grant.
Notwithstanding the technical bona fides of the Bindaree project, the grant has raised a few eyebrows in the meat industry.
Respected industry publication Beef Central says Bindaree Beef at one point owned southern Queensland's South Burnett meatworks, "which received millions of dollars in support for environmental projects from the Queensland and federal government before closing suddenly in 2007".
So we have a situation where a super-sized government grant has been awarded to a company with a mixed track record after lobbying by a politician who was instrumental in keeping the Labor government in power.
Then, shortly after Windsor returns to civilian life, he sets up a company with his former political aide Clements, who now works with Bindaree. Another director of the company is Hall of Forsyths, the firm involved in advising on the Bindaree grant.
Ironically, one of the first things Tony Abbott did when he got into power was to announce the Clean Energy Finance Corporation would be disbanded, but the corporation yet battles on under its statute and is pondering whether to finance a project linked to Abbott's political nemesis Windsor with a further $23 million.