Distillery grant process questioned in parliament

THERE were cries of “grubby politics” from the government benches in parliament last week as the State Opposition’s small business spokesperson, Janie Finlay MHA, asked a question about the awarding of a grant to the New Norfolk Distillery.

During Question Time in the house of Assembly last Thursday, Ms Finlay drew attention to the awarding of a $1.2 million government grant to the New Norfolk Distillery and asked Premier Jeremy Rockliff to explain what process had been followed in allocating that amount to the business.

“Your government is under continued scrutiny, including from the Integrity Commission, for the rorting of public funds without due process, including for millions of dollars of sports grants given to organisations where your MPs had clear conflicts of interest,” Ms Finlay said.

“Tarrant Derksen is a director of the New Norfolk Distillery,” Ms Finlay continued. “His brother, Justin Derksen, was a Liberal candidate for Lyons at the last state election and works in [minister] Guy Barnett’s office. In February you promised $1.2 million to the New Norfolk Distillery, requiring the business to only contribute $500,000.

“What process was followed to allocate so much money to this particular business? At the same time that you are telling Tasmanians to brace for a tough budget, do you think it is okay to just hand out public money to friends of the Liberal Party?”

New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News invited Tarrant Derksen and Justin Derksen to comment, as both were named in parliament. Justin Derksen, who is also a Derwent Valley Councillor, was brief in his response. “There are questions here that are best answered by other people,” he said.

Tarrant Derksen said: “We’ve been working really hard to get the New Norfolk Distillery Expansion Project to the next level. We’re going through a process at the moment and if the grant is confirmed then we’ll be creating 80 jobs – 40 in construction and 40 once completed. This will be the final piece in a fantastic puzzle to finally fix Willow Court.”

Kelvin Derksen was also invited to comment, given he has been acting as a spokesperson for New Norfolk Distillery on multiple local Facebook pages in recent weeks. A response has not been received but remains welcome.

Premier Jeremy Rockliff discussing the New Norfolk Distillery in the Tasmanian Parliament last week.

Addressing Ms Finlay’s question in parliament, Mr Rockliff said it was a “grubby attack on an individual.” Mr Rockliff said the distillery project was well supported in the community but added that there were a number of conditions to the grant and no money had been provided at this stage.

“This project aims to restore the buildings at Willow Court into an innovative visitor experience for tourists and locals alike, with a focus on a cellar door, tasting room, distillery, restaurant and function space, as well as a courtyard and external works,” he said.

“Its proponents aim to transform the derelict buildings of Willow Court into an interactive visitor experience, taking visitors through the history of this unique destination and aims to increase visitation to the Derwent Valley, building on its reputation as a must-see tourism destination.”

Ms Finlay said the project itself was not in question. “It will be a great business, but what was the process?” Ms Finlay asked, and Opposition leader Rebecca White also drew the premier’s attention to the nub of the question. “I draw the premier’s attention to the question, which was about what process this business went through to access the funds,” she said.

Mr Rockliff did not address the question of the process followed, but said the grant was conditional on a number of factors, “including ensuring it stacks up commercially, the transfer of land from the Derwent Valley Council to the New Norfolk Distillery, the distillery demonstrating an ability to finance and complete the project, including significant additional funding, satisfying the independent Tasmanian Development Board and other terms and conditions commensurate with a proposal such as this. As such, no allocations have yet been made by from the Tasmanian Government.

“The Department of State Growth continues to work with these conditions with the proponent,” Mr Rockliff said. “I assure the House that these provisions are appropriate to ensure adequate safeguards are in place and to ensure the project stacks up commercially while fostering this important project for the Derwent Valley. I make no apologies for supporting rural and regional Tasmanian tourism operators across Tasmania and investing in key areas to grow the economy. I will not involve myself in grubby politics like those opposite.”

Ms Finlay also asked whether other businesses had been able to apply for the funding, and this was not answered.

Main photo: Labor’s Janie Finlay asking her question in parliament last week.

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