Oyster farmers to complain against 'anti-competitive' investment move
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Oyster farmers to complain against 'anti-competitive' investment move

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet will request a briefing on the government's multimillion-dollar investment in an oyster company, as rival farmers prepare to challenge the decision on the grounds it breaches the government's own competition policy.

Mr Perrottet conceded he was not across the detail of the government's decision to buy a $3.3 million stake in the loss-making company Australia's Oyster Coast (AOC), when questioned on it in a budget estimates hearing on Monday.

However, he stated his personal view "as a small government Liberal is we should be getting out of the way as much of possible" and said treasury had an "important role" to play "in making sure there is a level playing field".

The government's investment in Australia's Oyster Coast has infuriated other players in the oyster industry.

The government's investment in Australia's Oyster Coast has infuriated other players in the oyster industry. Credit:Instagram: @australiasoystercoast

The oyster farm is the second investment by a government agency, Jobs for NSW, through its new GO NSW Equity Fund. It has also purchased a $3.3 million stake in Stone Axe Pastoral, a Wagyu beef agribusiness in Ebor, in northern NSW.

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The government's investment in AOC, on the NSW south coast, has infuriated other players in the oyster industry who, as the Herald has previously reported, believe the move lacked transparency and would distort the market.

At least five rival oyster farms now want the matter investigated by the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal to determine whether the government has breached its own "competitive neutrality" policy to "compete with private business on an equal footing".

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The government is expected to respond to any complaint within four weeks, at which point businesses can request the NSW Premier refer their complaint to IPART.

Caroline Henry, chairwoman of the NSW Farmers Federation oyster committee, said she had received numerous phone calls from farmers across NSW who were "very unhappy with the decision and the lack of transparency".

"They're annoyed at the fact that government didn't support the industry as a whole. They've chosen to give [the money] to a private company, and given an unfair advantage to them," Ms Henry said.

She said five oyster farmers were "formalising the necessary paper work" to appeal the decision, with more farmers expected to join the complaints process.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet says the treasury has a role to play 'in making sure there is a level playing field'.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet says the treasury has a role to play 'in making sure there is a level playing field'. Credit:James Brickwood

The farmers are located on both the NSW south and north coast, and include Ms Henry's partner Kel Henry, with whom she co-owns Wonboyn Rock Oysters.

The GO NSW Equity Fund was established last year in partnership with superannuation company First State Super and private equity firm ROC Partners, with the aim investing "$150 million in approved, high-potential companies which may not otherwise have access to suitable capital".

The government's stake in AOC was part of a $10 million co-investment, which included $6.7 million from First State Super.

ROC Partners have also invested an additional $10 million in AOC, taking the total investment in the company through the private equity firm to $20 million.

According to a spokesman for Jobs for NSW, the investment is managed at "arm's length by ROC Partners and Jobs for NSW has no role in day to day operations or management decisions of AOC".

Labor's treasury spokesman Ryan Park said the NSW government had a "lot of explaining to do in relation to this deal".

"We support getting IPART to take a look at this deal because it simply doesn’t make sense," Mr Park said.

Australia's Oyster Coast is chaired by former Liberal party operative David Trebeck. In a since-deleted statement posted to the company's website in 2017,  Mr Trebeck revealed the company had made a loss for the two previous years. The website appears to have been wiped of content in the past week.

Lisa Visentin is state political reporter. She has previously covered urban affairs, and worked in federal parliament.