The state government back flipped over a deed that was sent to potato growers which initially stated growers could not pursue the government for lost revenue if they accepted an offer to reimburse them for legal costs.
Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan announced in parliament last week that $484,316 recovered from the legal trust fund would be distributed back to growers, along with the $200,000 of costs paid by Galati Nominees Pty Ltd if growers signed the deed.
The reimbursement pertained to Premier Mark McGowan’s decision to step in to stop a civil lawsuit from proceeding against Tony Galati, which was initiated by growers.
On Thursday, Ms MacTiernan retracted her statement in parliament to clarify the nature of the deed and said that she did not believe there were any realistic intentions to take action against the state government.
“Taxpayers of WA have already contributed $14 million to structural readjustment package and a great deal of growers’ money has been spent on private law firms,” she said.
“We have been able to recover some of those monies and give the costs awards to the state back to growers and we think this is the best outcome for growers.”
It was revealed last week that the state government wrote to 74 WA potato growers offering to return their share of $684,316 from legal costs, some of which the Potato Marketing Corporation had set aside in a legal fund.
Despite Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan saying the distribution of funds would bring an end to the saga of the Potato Marketing Corporation, potato growers labelled the move unfair.
The Potato Growers Association of WA executive officer Simon Moltoni said the money being reimbursed to growers was their own money – not state money - including the money Mr Galati was ordered to pay.
When the association first saw the deed, Mr Moltoni said the government were “holding a gun to our heads” with their own money.
“We were told more than once the money would be returned to us unconditionally and we will seek legal clarification on the deed of distribution,” he said.
“The industry feel that the government should be held accountable for the decision it made to drop the damages claim.”
Mr Moltoni said from the outside the offer may appear generous but the association saw it as a maneuver by the government to avoid responsibility.
“It is our money just give it back to us, we will decide if we want to pursue you for your actions,” he said. Mr Moltoni said if the state government had offered compensation, growers could then decide if they were prepared to settle or not.
Busselton potato grower Keith Taylor said they had been doing it tough ever since the Premier stuck his oar in and that potato growers were very unhappy with Mr McGowan for taking sides with Mr Galati.
Mr Taylor said he was pursuing a freedom of information request on the matter.
”The offer is not fair because it only involves part of our costs, the true figure would be about twice as much,” he said.
“Growers should be allowed to pursue any legal avenue they see fit, since they stood to gain a lot if the case was successful.”
Vasse MP Libby Mettam said the payment announced by the government simply represented a refund of money paid by local farmers to a fighting fund to prosecute what they believed was unlawful planting activity.
Ms Mettam said it was extraordinary that growers money would only be returned if they signed a deed not to take further action.
“That, understandably, rung alarm bells amongst this sector and beyond,” she said.
“I understand that since this extraordinary step was taken by the McGowan Government the Minister has made some form of last minute retraction to parliament via a hand written statement.
“Given this is simply a refund of growers money I found it concerning that the McGowan government were attempting to restrain the legal freedom of these growers against the state in this way.”