Tuesday, 17 July 2018 07:55

Answers raise more questions

Written by  David Anderson
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor. Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.

Taxpayers will fork out about half a million dollars a year to fund the new Primary Sector Council (PSC), the brainchild of Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.

This information comes to light after a series of questions asked by Rural News under the Official Information Act (OIA) about the costs and formation of the PSC. 

The OIA request sent to the Minster of Agriculture’s office in early June, but passed on to MPI to answer as it was deemed “an operational matter”.

“It’s because the details you requested in your OIA were operational matters and the responsibility of MPI. The ministry is tasked with the administration of this council; under the Act the Minister has a duty to transfer [the request],” the minister’s office responded.

Rural News’ request for details of the costs and spending to set up the PSC was refused by MPI.

“The specific information requested for establishment expenditure and costs is not available,” MPI responded. “Accordingly, I am refusing your request under section 18(e) of the OIA.”

However, despite MPI’s refusal to provide details of these costs, the minister’s office confirmed to Rural News that the PSC will have an “estimated annual cost of $400,000 - $500,000” and two MPI staff will administer it “not full time, [only] estimated 0.75 FTE (full time equivalents)”.

MPI confirmed that $300,000 - $350,000 had been budgeted annually for the cost of meetings, room hire, airfares and accommodation for the council. Administration is expected to cost $100,000 - $150,000 a year on top of this, but this is only an estimate.

“A cost estimate has been provided as, at this stage, no firm decision has been made on the number of council meetings that will be held over the next 12 months.”

The OIA also reveals that no formal process was used to select the council members. “A formal process was not established,” MPI said. 

It says the process for identifying candidates included nominations by industry groups, interest groups, MPs and MPI. “Candidates were approved by the Cabinet appointment and honours committee prior to the minister making the appointments.”

The council is chaired by former Zespri chief executive Lain Jager. This cost information is at odds with claims by chair Lain Jagger in an interview with another media outlet earlier this month “that the operating costs for the council’s two-year reign are yet unknown”.

The 14 other council members are Nadine Tunley, Puawai Wereta, Tony Egan, Julia Jones, John Brakenridge, Stephanie Howard, Shama Lee, Mark Paine, Julian Raine, Neil Richardson, Mirana Stephens, John Rodwell, Steve Saunders and Steve Smith.

The OIA response also shows the council members will not receive an annual payment but a daily rate of “$800 for the chair, $500 for members and $650 for members acting as chair or leading a sub-group”. This contravenes claims made by Jager, in the same interview, that council members will be “paid the normal government meeting rate of $450 a day”.

The newly revealed costs of the PSC and revelations of no formal selection process comes on top of earlier criticism of its member appointments, which centred on farmers and scientists not being fairly represented on the council.

Questions about meeting frequency, timetable and proposed agendas for the council over the next 12 months also drew a blank from MPI.

“The meeting timetable and agendas for the Primary Sector Council for the next 12 months have not yet been established,” was its response. “Meetings are likely to be monthly for the next few months and thereafter quarterly.”

Rural News understands the PSC first met on May 23 and its next meeting is scheduled for July 23.

 

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