The NSW government has given the state’s corruption watchdog a report into the porkbarrelling of bushfire recovery grants by the former deputy premier John Barilaro.
The report, released last week by Auditor General Margaret Crawford, found after receiving applications for the grants, Mr Barilaro changed the rules so funding was fast-tracked to coalition-held seats.
“The Department of Premier and Cabinet has provided the Auditor-General report to the ICAC for their information,” a spokeswoman told Government News.
The audit considered how effectively the Department of Regional NSW and Resilience NSW administered the $541.8 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) program.
It found the department didn’t effectively administer fast-tracked grants and that the process lacked integrity.
It also found Mr Barilaro’s $1 million threshold, below which projects weren’t approved for funding, was applied without a documented reason and wasn’t part of the program guidelines.
This resulted in a number of shortlisted projects in areas highly impacted by the bushfires, including all shortlisted projects located in Labor Party-held electorates, being excluded without a rationale beingMargaret Crawford
documented at the time.
“This resulted in a number of shortlisted projects in areas highly impacted by the bushfires, including all shortlisted projects located in Labor Party-held electorates, being excluded without a rationale being
documented at the time,” Ms Crawford found.
“It is important to note that most of the highest impacted LGAs were either wholly or primarily in electorates represented by Coalition members.
“However, there were three highly impacted LGAs in Labor-held electorate including Blue Mountains City Council and Tenterfield Shire Council.
“Projects in these two areas were excluded from the fast-tracked stream due to the $1 million threshold.”
On Friday, the Mayor of Blue Mountains told Government News he supported an ICAC investigation.
Cr Mark Greenhill said his Council received zero funding despite putting forward 24 projects worth $5.4m in total.
“When we queried it, we were told there was a criteria applied with a $1 million cutoff and we were going … where the hell did this come from?”
It was ‘shattering’ to read the report, he said.
“You kind of like to think there’s some things that are above politics, and bushfire recovery would have to be one. But clearly not.”
Cr Greenhill said councils could no longer have confidence in the current government’s grants system.
“If you’re going to rip off bushfire affected communities for politics you have no moral authority,” he said.
‘Treated like the poor cousin’
Tenterfield mayor Bronwyn Petrie said 60 per cent of the shire was burnt and it was one of the first and longest affected LGA in the state, suffering immense damage.
“Given the government’s directions for the grants we obviously ticked all those boxes,” she told Government News.
Cr Petrie said Council had no prior knowledge of the $1 million threshold.
“It’s very concerning for my community to read that there was an additional threshold to be met above the published guidelines,” she said.
Cr Petrie also said cumulative totals of grant funding across all shires and all rounds of founding, contained in the report, showed Tenterfield received significantly less that other LGAs.
“If you compare us to other shires of similar or even less impact, we are coming off as the poor cousin,” she said.
“It’s not surprising coalition electorates got the bulk of the funding because most fire impacted areas were in coalition seats. However Tenterfield and Blue Mountains were equally, if not more affected therefore why would you not fund them?”
Grant guidelines strengthened
Mr Perottet’s spokeswoman said the Premier had previously taken action against pork barrelling including releasing a strengthened Grants Administration Guide last September.
“The changes to the Guide mean that officials are required to prepare clear and consistent guidelines for grant programs, containing certain, specified information, including eligibility and assessment criteria, the assessment process, the decision-maker for the grant, and who is responsible for different aspects of the grants process,” she said.
Around 5.5 million hectares of bushland in NSW was burnt and 26 people lost their lives during the 2019–20 bushfire season.
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