One of the nation’s most experienced politicians, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, says he was completely stumped by a cash prize from billionaire political donor Gina Rinehart this week.
Mr Joyce is in the middle of a byelection to win back his seat of New England but travelled to Canberra on Tuesday for an event hosted by Mrs Rinehart’s company, where she personally awarded him a giant novelty cheque worth $40,000 for being a “champion of farming”.
The following morning, after criticism from agricultural industry representatives and Labor, Mr Joyce’s office confirmed he would decline the money.
Mr Joyce abandoned his local campaign in New England again on Friday to travel to Queensland and promote candidates ahead of the state election this weekend.
He told reporters in Rockhampton he was blindsided by the lucrative award, which he initially accepted.
“What the hell was I supposed to do, jump up and down on it, put my hands behind my head?” he said.
“You can’t pull the rug out from underneath the people, you turn it into a complete embarrassment.”
Mr Joyce said he did not have any prior warning he was going to get the prize.
“Do you honestly think, I’d say, ‘Hey what’s a really good idea is when I get up there, you give me a dirty big cheque on a piece of cardboard and that’ll be just such a winner’?” he asked.
In his acceptance speech Mr Joyce told the assembled crowd at the Australian War Memorial he planned to spend the money on his farm.
He maintains that comment was an attempt to be gracious.
“I’m trying to work out how to be polite on the stage while in the back of my head I’m desperately working out how to get this thing back,” he said.
Mr Joyce will face New England voters in a byelection next Saturday, December 2.
There are 17 candidates contesting the seat but the Nationals expect to retain it with a comfortable margin.
Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon has raised concerns about Mrs Rinehart’s influence over Australian agricultural policy.
Before being booted out of Parliament for being a dual citizen, Mr Joyce was the federal agriculture minister, and he and Mrs Rinehart are known to be friends.
She has previously been a generous donor to his career, famously attending his election night party in 2013 and contributing $50,000 to that campaign.