The NSW Coalition government has had to deal with waves of scandal in the past few years, including one that forced the resignation of a premier, but it is hard to think of anything more cynical than the pork-barrelling of recovery funds intended for victims of the 2019 Black Summer bushfires.
As NSW Auditor-General Margaret Crawford revealed in a report on Thursday, the office of former deputy premier John Barilaro in October 2020 intervened in a $108 million program to help bushfire victims and inexplicably altered the guidelines with the result that no grants were allocated in ALP-held seats in the initial round of funding.
This meant that areas in the Blue Mountains and Tenterfield, which suffered some of the worst damage, missed out.
There is very strong circumstantial evidence that the altering of the rules was not an unfortunate coincidence or an oversight but a case of blatant pork-barrelling designed to secure the re-election of Coalition MPs.
Crawford pointed out that when the Department of Regional NSW supplied a list of 35 projects to Barilaro’s office for consideration, it specified the electorates the projects were based in, even though that was not relevant to the criteria for the grants.
Barilaro’s office then, without explanation or a public announcement, changed the rules, imposing an arbitrary $1 million threshold for grants. The result was that all the projects in Labor electorates missed the cut.
Blue Mountains’ Labor mayor Mark Greenhill, who smelled a rat and complained at the time, said that the Coalition’s pork-barrelling “debases the experience of my community during Black Summer”.
As Opposition Leader Chris Minns said on Friday, at times of national tragedy such as the Black Summer bushfires, people expect to be treated equally but Barilaro’s office seemingly ranked victims by their usefulness to the Coalition.
“It’s a basic fact of Australian life that if you’re in a disaster zone, and you need help from your own government, it will come – it doesn’t matter which party you voted for at the last election,” Minns said.
He said the apparent pork-barrelling was a sign that after 12 years the Coalition had been in power for too long. “What would under normal circumstances be considered outrageous becomes ingrained in the culture of the organisation,” Minns said.
The release of the report just weeks out from the March 25 state election is a nightmare for Premier Dominic Perrottet because it brings back memories from the past few years.
The Coalition has form when it comes to pork-barrelling. The auditor-general last year raised questions about political bias and the lack of transparency in the allocation of $352 million of grants to local councils before the 2019 state election.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption launched its own inquiries into grants programs, including former premier Gladys Berejiklian’s role in handing community grants to bodies linked to her secret boyfriend Daryl Maguire. The ICAC will likely not release the findings of that inquiry until after the state election.
The auditor-general’s report brings back to centre stage the former deputy premier and Nationals leader, who was last year embroiled in a scandal after being selected for a $500,000 a year trade role in New York.
Barilaro’s involvement in bushfire grants will only deepen the questions about why his colleagues decided he was the best candidate for that post.
Perrottet can argue that he has learned the lessons from these scandals. Unlike Berejiklian, he has unambiguously condemned the practice of pork-barrelling.
He commissioned an internal review and in August he published a memorandum which will implement its recommendations. Ministers, their staff and public servants will be required to meet best practice standards on accountability, transparency and conflicts of interest.
Yet the smell lingers. Barilaro, now out of politics, is a convenient scapegoat but it is hard to believe that other MPs and ministers, including those whose electorates benefitted from fiddling the bushfire recovery grants, were blind to what was happening.
Moreover, the ICAC has called for even stronger regulations on the allocation of grants programs which will make it clear that interference on purely political grounds is a form of corruption.
Minns has said the auditor-general should have more power to investigate how money dispensed under grants is spent by the recipients.
The auditor’s report should not be the end of the bushfire grants matter. The ICAC should investigate forensically and determine if the cynical conduct revealed in the auditor-general’s report crosses the threshold of corruption.
MPs must learn that they cannot treat taxpayer funds allocated for the public good as a personal election war chest.
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