Dining out on drought funding

Southern Downs Regional Council chambers
Southern Downs Regional Council chambers

FOLLOWING the revelation last week that drought funding money had been used for a Warwick Christmas dinner, Southern Downs Regional Council proceeded with a similar dinner in Stanthorpe on Thursday night.

The free dinners were paid for by a $70,000 allocation from the State Government's Community Drought Support program.

Total costs for venue hire, meals and entertainment for the two dinners held in Stanthorpe and Warwick was $14,664. The number of attendees totalled about 190, with a cost per participant of about $77.

The lid was lifted last week in the council meeting when Deputy Mayor Ross Bartley brought the meetings to a head. The Queensland College of Wine Tourism hosted the Stanthorpe Rural Christmas Dinner. It was an invite-only event that featured a free two-course meal and entertainment.

Many were outraged that money for drought-affected rural farmers was going to pay for an exclusive dinner and it wasn't even serving as a fundraiser.

More than 80 people attended the dinner at QCWT, with attendees representing a range of banks, accountants and agri-businesses.

The grant application form for the Community Drought Support Package states the purpose of the grant as "being administered under the CDSP and is to provide support initiatives to strengthen the resilience of drought-affected Queenslanders by revitalising existing community support mechanisms within defined geographic regions".

Mayor Peter Blundell said it was part of a range of initiatives funded with drought money.

"The dinners were a small part of the very successful delivery of community resilience measures provided through $70,000 worth of State Government funding, which has included projects such as the Community Care Cards, an Ag Expo at the Warwick Saleyards, a Feast of Flavours dinner showcasing local produce and mental health workshops, all delivered under the community drought support funding," he said.

Councillors Vic Pennisi and Cameron Gow said they were unaware of the dinner until it was brought to the attention of Cr Bartley and consequently the entire council.

"I'm the portfolio holder for agriculture and I was not invited until the day before," Cr Gow said.

"I chose not to attend. I've lived through droughts and hail storms and they're no bloody fun. I've almost been sent broke," he said.

Cr Pennisi said councillors were not informed of the dinner until it was too late to do anything about it.

"I guess in this case the question is, if there is a more needy community than ours and whether the dinner could have been used as a fundraiser (as suggested by the deputy mayor) for those whose need may be considered greater than ours?" Cr Pennisi said.

Cr Blundell explained how the invitations worked.

"Invitations were extended to banking institutions, accountants, stock agents, auctioneers and rural agricultural businesses, inviting them each to bring up to 10 people, with a mixture of staff and customers, and it was the prerogative of these individual businesses to decide whom they invited," he said.

Cr Blundell said the dinner acted as a business information session.

"It should be understood that the Rural Christmas Dinners held in the Southern Downs have informed bank managers, agents and rural service providers, as well as producers, of the signs to look for in those that need assistance, in who can provide that assistance and how to get in touch with the providers," he said.

"I am disappointed, however, with the level of criticism aimed at council over these rural dinners and the great work of council's Community Services team, which has been undermined by ill-considered and misleading remarks and particularly more so knowing that similar events and activities in other regions delivered under the same funding have attracted very positive press.

"We recognised that drought and natural disasters put a lot of strain on the agricultural industry and these dinners were intended to push these problems and the associated stressors to the side for one night," Cr Blundell said.

There has been $90,000 worth of similar funding approved for 2016.

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