Pigs might fly: electioneering an airport at Cohuna

by | Feb 23, 2020 | Government

An unregistered lobbyist, a ministerial breach of the Lobbying Code of Conduct and a $2.6 million grant awarded during the election campaign minus pesky guidelines. Jommy Tee and Ronni Salt clear the pigs for take off.

The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, struck a pre-election deal with an unregistered political lobbyist and former Howard Government adviser, Andrew Gibbs, for a $2.6 million airport upgrade ahead of the launch of the Regional Airports Program (RAP). McCormack’s direct intervention mirrors Senator Bridget McKenzie in using taxpayers’ money for electioneering. He also breached the Government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct.

The $100 million airports program was announced in the pork-laden 2019-20 Budget, just ahead of the election. It provided grants to upgrade infrastructure and deliver improved aviation safety and access at regional airports.

p.146 Budget Measures Budget Paper No. 2 2019-20

That pre-election budget also delivered $192.5 million in community sports initiatives and infrastructure grants (aka #sportsrorts); an additional $206.2 million in Building Better Regions funding (a program referred by the Labor opposition to the Auditor-General for investigation); and additional funding for Community Development Grants bringing total funding for that program to $496.2 million.

In anyone’s language, this is a sizeable election war chest, most of it administered by McCormack and his infrastructure department.

McCormack and National’s candidate for the regional Victorian seat of Mallee, Dr Anne Webster, followed the Coalition’s election playbook, awarding grants before programs had even got off the ground. Four days before the federal election on 18 May 2019, McCormack announcement a $2.57 million upgrade of the Cohuna airport. This pre-election spend was to boost Webster’s chances of retaining the seat for the Nationals. Dr Webster was a late replacement as the incumbent, Andrew Broad, had crashed ahead of the election courtesy of an international sex scandal.

On Andrew Gibbs’ FB page 13 May 2019: “I thank on behalf of the Club Hon M. McCormack Deputy PM and Dr Anne Webster and the departmental officials who have ensured this significant scaled up asset could be delivered to Cohuna…”

Cohuna Aviation Club’s president is Andrew Gibbs. Gibbs, a former Howard Government policy adviser. He also runs a political consultancy called Primary Policy Partners (PPP). Notably, PPP is not on the Federal Government’s lobbyist register.

The announcement at Cohuna airport, covered in depth by regional media, was unusual in that the funding was announced by Dr Webster and the Victorian Nationals state leader, Peter Walsh. There was no federal minister in sight.

Cohuna Airport is managed by Gannawarra Shire Council, which leases the land from Coliban Water. The Cohuna Aviation Club is a both a user and a tenant.

It is unprecedented for a state opposition party leader and a Nationals candidate to award and commit $2.6 million of federal government funding for a project during an election campaign. Doing it on behalf of the Coalition during an election campaign also points to the Deputy Prime Minister having discussed the $2.6 million grant with a state colleague ahead of the actual program launch. Questions about probity and transparency anyone?

It appears the local council, Gannawarra Shire Council, was also blind-sided by the announcement as the development of the airport is the subject of an ongoing feud between council and Andrew Gibbs representing the Cohuna Aviation Club.

The $2.6 million funding was to upgrade the Cohuna airport by lengthening, widening and strengthening the runway. This would enable larger jets and emergency services to use the airport fulfilling Gibbs’ grand plan of establishing an international pilot training facility. Gibbs claimed that the pilot training facility would host 40-50 cadets each year, providing an economic fillip to the small town.

Speaking at the announcement, Gibbs mentioned that a deal for pilot training had fallen through but he had subsequently signed an MoU with an unnamed international company to train cadets at Cohuna airport. It appears to be a case of build it and they will come, because as far as can be ascertained, no cadets have yet arrived for training.

At the announcement, Gibbs named Northern Constructions as both a donor to the project and the successful tenderer. This raises significant probity issues around tender processes for construction on local government managed land without the apparent involvement of the Council in the tender process.

On 16 May 2019, just two days before the Federal election, Gibbs boasted to the local ABC radio station that he had lobbied for the project

“well before caretaker convention, just after the program was announced and (the program) hasn’t even gone into open rounds yet”.

Gibbs went on to say that he was

“pretty confident that no matter what happens on Saturday (Election day) the facility will proceed”.

Gibbs’ optimism stemmed from the fact that the Opposition had agreed to support the Regional Aviation Fund “and support applications made”.

Unpacking these statements:

  • the program was announced on 1 April — the day before the 2019-20 Budget. The space between the announcement and the commencement of caretaker period was nine days, with caretaker period starting on 11 April 2019.
  • it seems highly unusual for an application be lodged within days of a program being announced with no available program guidelines and no funding round yet announced.
  • while it is true that the Labor opposition pledged to support the regional aviation program, it made no commitment to support applications already made or commitments already entered into. Indeed, given that the program had only been announced weeks before and was a long way from being open for business, it would have been politically rash to commit to ”phantom” projects.

The above timeline above shows Gibbs scored a funding commitment ahead of the RAP going live and had it announced just days before the election.

The RAP subsequently opened for applications on 24 October 2019, some five months after the election yet McCormack and Webster had already committed the money prior to the program coming on stream. The guidelines for the program state that it will be an “open competitive scheme” yet $2.6 million had already been awarded, and reconfirmed by McCormack on 17 October 2019.

It is important to note that Gibbs has strong ties to the Coalition having previously organised the infamous $5,000 helicopter trip of former parliamentary speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, which eventually ended her speakership. Media reports at the time indicated that Gibbs was close friends with Bishop’s chief of staff, Damien Jones. Jones, who is married to Liberal NSW upper house politician Natasha MacLaren-Jones, is still involved with Liberal Party albeit in a backroom capacity.  Gibbs himself used to work for former Liberal senator Helen Coonan, as did MacLaren-Jones.

As stated above, Gibbs’ firm Primary Policy Partners is not registered on the Federal government’s lobbyist register. The last time Gibb’s company was listed on the federal register was in 2017 when it represented nine companies, including the Cohuna Aviation Club, of which Gibbs himself is president.

It would appear Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has breached the government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct, whereby ministers must not have contact with unregistered lobbyists. The lobbying code (Section 4.1) clearly states that a government representative:

…. shall not knowingly and intentionally be party to lobbying activities by:

(p) a lobbyist who is not on the Register of Lobbyists;

(q) an employee of a lobbyist, or a contractor or person engaged by a lobbyist to carry out lobbying activities whose name does not appear in the lobbyist’s details noted on the Register of Lobbyists in connection with the lobbyist; or

(r) a lobbyist or an employee of a lobbyist, or a contractor or person engaged by a lobbyist to carry out lobbying activities who, in the opinion of the Government representative, has failed to observe any of the requirements of clause 8.1(e).

By interacting with Gibbs, the deputy prime minister was in flagrant breach of the lobbying code.

Indeed, McCormack has previously been at political events and forums in the region convened by Primary Policy Partners. One involved consultations around the dairy industry just weeks before the election. Gibbs, who also has an interest in the local hotel, has also convened fundraising forums and functions for the National Party.

The airport at Cohuna, piloted by Andrew Gibbs and powered by the National Party pork barrelling machine, is flying high with its $2.6m grant.

Given what we know, let’s hope the venture doesn’t end up in a tailspin.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jommy Tee

Jommy Tee

Jommy Tee is a long-time career public servant, having worked in the policy development field for 25+ years as well as an independent researcher interested in politics, current affairs, and Nordic noir. You can follow Jommy on Twitter @Jommy_Tee.

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