THE Member for Flinders, Greg Hunt, who includes among his constituents the people of Phillip Island, the Western Port towns and a large slab of the Bass Coast Shire, has the potential and the capacity to go all the way in Australian politics.
But he also knows his quest for higher honours would look pretty silly if he lost his own seat.
Which is why he is always very accessible, certainly to this newspaper anyway, when an issue arises as it did last week.
The issue was and remains Landcare and the fact that Mr Hunt, as the Environment Minister, has assumed a key role in the funding of local Landcare Groups as a result of a major shuffling of Landcare funding in the Federal Budget.
But, unfortunately for local Landcare Networks and their groups, the only information they were privy to was that the Budget had savagely cut $484 million from Landcare funding, allocated through the Agriculture Department.
They feared it would mean no funding for the small grants programs their network coordinators and facilitators rely on to deliver the dozens of weeds, tree-planting, fencing and land management projects in co-operation with local farmers, volunteers and community groups.
The government had failed to tell anyone if anything was in place to take over, what form it might take, how much money would be available and when it would be rolled out.
With 12 people employed by the Bass Coast Landcare Network alone, no new grants coming in and a huge list of priority local projects needing attention, they were understandably worried.
They’ve got mortgages, kids at school and food to be put on the table as well.
On Thursday, May 29 we learned that it had taken Western Australian Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert, to force government Agriculture officials to admit that there would no longer be any small grant funding for the nation’s 6000 Landcare groups, the main environmental interface between farmers and the government.
We put the information up on our website.
It looked serious until Mr Hunt phoned the Sentinel-Times, a little hot under the collar it must be said, and told us that it was always intended that the small grants program for Landcare would continue.
Its rollout, he claimed, was only being delayed to provide time for community consultation. But who knew?
We gave his office an earlier chance to comment but they came back with some lame response about the design of the National Landcare Programme being well underway with public consultation due to commence shortly.
He couldn’t or wouldn’t say whether there would be more or less funding made available, whether projects funded would be slanted more to ‘environmental’ works than those which would benefit ‘agriculture’ and ultimately whether local Landcare Groups would be better or worse off.
The fact is that as a PR exercise, the change has been a disaster.
Clearly government departments knew what was going on but due to the potential for negative publicity, no one was saying anything.
Mr Hunt said it was a pre-election commitment (promise?) to keep the small grants program going, but in light of other pre-Budget promises, who could be sure what would happen?
With more than 6000 Landcare groups Australia-wide and 100s of thousands of volunteers it was incumbent on the government to tell people what was going on before they cut $484 million in funding from their lifeline.
It’s just plain stupid not to do so where such a well-loved program as Landcare is involved.
And those with experience in these areas know the much-vaunted Green Army initiative isn’t going to do the job.
For one thing they have a dramatically lower success rate with tree planting.
It has been hinted that too much Landcare money is being lost in administration and that may be so, but the extent of that should also be revealed. We doubt it’s a local Landcare issue.
There may well be a good story to tell about the changes to Landcare funding (there may not) but surely it’s a core issue for a Liberal-National Government and should have been better handled.
The supply of information has emerged as the greatest problem for the Abbott-Truss Government, and at the risk of being accused of self-interest, there are times when using advertising for the genuine delivery of important information should be seen as an investment by the government rather than a cost.