In his 26th day in the role as the state’s new Deputy Premier, Paul Toole has taken some major steps to distance himself from the policies of his predecessor by shutting down plans for new coal mines and opting not to give a bouquet to the political art of pork-barrelling when he was given the chance.
His second appearance in the fortnight of New South Wales’ parliamentary budget estimates was the first chance to see how the new leader in the portfolio once held by John Barilaro.
Early in his evidence to the Regional NSW hearing, Mr Toole revealed he has already taken steps to ask for a briefing on how his department hands out grants.
Labor’s Mick Veitch took up the issue after the new Premier Dominic Perrottet announced a review into how grants raised questions about pork-barrelling in regional seats, just days after the former Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s appearance at the ICAC.
“There are quite a number of funding buckets in the Department of Regional NSW, as we well know. Have you implemented your own internal review of the processes within your new department,” Mr Veitch asks.
“Yeah, look I have had a conversation already in the department about some of those processes and I am understanding that there have been a number of changes that have been made,” Mr Toole says.
“One of the very first things I did when I became the Deputy Premier was to have that conversation with the department.”
When asked if “pork-barrelling was dead” and if the recent spotlight on the issue has “changed the way people would go about promising funds for electorates” Mr Toole says the review showed the government would govern for all.
His comments contrast with those made by John Barilaro in February in a fiery performance at an inquiry into the $177 million bushfire relief fund where he acknowledged his unflattering nickname “Pork Barilaro”.
Although Mr Barilaro said he did not like the moniker, it represented funding he is proud of.
“What we call pork-barrelling is investment,” he says.
“You want to call that pork-barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, that is what the elections are for.”
Objection to coal plan
In a departure from Barilaro’s plan to open up more of the state for coal exploration, Mr Toole told the hearing he would put a stop to plans to open up two areas of the Central West.
He said he would tell his cabinet colleagues not to support mines in the Hawkins and Rumker areas, both north of Rylstone near Mudgee.
“I take that position because there are issues around commerciality of the project and also there are social issues around the project.”
It left Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann stunned.
“Well, minister there is a ute muster happening in Rylstone this weekend actually in opposition to this proposal, so I think all of the locals will be happy to hear that,” she says.
He denies the decision has anything to do with the area’s proximity to his electorate of Bathurst.
She pushed him further on 13 other potential release areas, but he said he would not pre-empt those decisions.
Little difference on land tax
One area where there is little departure from his predecessor is on government’s proposal to replace stamp duty with a new land tax.
Farmers warn the move will have a devastating impact on large agricultural land holdings.
While across the parliamentary halls in another estimates hearing the new state Treasurer Matt Kean backed away from the plan, Paul Toole echoed his predecessor in saying the idea is only a “proposal”.
The NSW Farmers Association says neither the current nor previous Nationals leaders are “endeared” to the idea, but it still wants the conversation around a land tax on agricultural land officially removed from the policy discussion document.
Less enthusiasm for uranium
A theme running through several days of the hearings is the attempt to test the coalition’s temperature on its level of support for a One Nation bill to overturn the state’s existing ban on uranium mining.
It is sparked by comments made in parliament in October by the leader of the Upper House Damien Tudehope when he said he would “ensure that the Perrottet-Toole government has another look at this bill with fresh eyes”.
Mr Barilaro had a long history of supporting the nuclear sector and uranium mining, and while far from putting the brakes on the potential, Mr Toole offers much less enthusiastic support.
His colleagues say despite being in the new role for only a couple of weeks, his performance shows he is across his brief.
“Barra 2.0 it was not”, one said “he knew his stuff and there was no theatre”.
The four hours of hearing helped provide an interesting insight into the consultative, less combative style of the Deputy Premier.
Kelly Fuller hosts Parliwaffle on ABC Local Radio in regional NSW on Friday mornings.
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