Pork barrelling extraordinaire Gladys Berejikilian has been caught at it again. This time the NSW premier’s government was found to have been distributing bushfire relief funds in a politically advantageous manner in allegiance with big boss the Morrison government.
The current scandal involves a November announcement by federal emergency management minister David Littleproud and NSW deputy premier John Barilaro, which sets out the allocation of $177 million to 71 bushfire recovery projects as part of the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund.
As the National Bushfire Recovery Agency tells it, this relief funding is to drive recovery in communities hit hard by the 2019-20 bushfires, with the priority projects having been “identified by the NSW Government and agreed to by the Australian Government”.
How this translates on the ground is that Coalition MPs went about offering grants. And as NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge found on a closer perusal of the figures, only $2.5 million out of the overall $171 million went to seats that aren’t held by the Liberals and Nationals.
And while it’s disappointing to find both levels of government unable to honestly distribute fire relief, it’s hardly surprising given that the premier was recently detected having curried favour with grants in the lead up to the last NSW election. And in response, she simply said it’s common practice.
A funding bonanza
“For me, this is one of the worst cases of pork barrelling, because this money was set aside to help bushfire ravaged communities across the state,” explained Shoebridge. “Instead of going on the basis of need, it has clearly been doled out on the basis of political connection.”
“We don’t know the final basis upon which these projects were identified or approved,” the Greens MP continued, “but what we can see is many of them have no connection at all to bushfire relief.”
Some of the more questionable projects that urgently needed relief funding following the bushfires include $11 million to see Macleay Valley Skydiving Adventure Park built, $8.2 million to overhaul the Casino Showground and Racecourse and $8.25 million to expand Taree’s Saxby Stadium.
In the Snowy Valleys region, money was allocated to two wineries to upgrade their cellar doors, while $3.5 million was granted to develop a new cider manufacturing centre, and $3.95 million was set aside for increasing accommodation for itinerant workers at the Batlow Caravan Park.
“You cannot explain these funding outcomes, other than through the prism of politics,” Shoebridge stressed. “This was a tap on the shoulder process, where people with connections to government got the funds and no one else knew it was available.”
Most in need, yet overlooked
When it comes to the 2019-20 bushfires, the Blue Mountains was one of the hardest hit regions in the state. Around 80 percent of its world heritage area was destroyed by the wildfires. However, the Berejiklian government couldn’t find any “shovel-ready” projects to fund in the Labor-held region.
“The Blue Mountains was savaged by two megafires at the end of 2019,” Shoebridge recalled. “Almost two-thirds of the natural bushland was fire-affected, millions and millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure was damaged, and houses and businesses were lost.”
“It’s impossible to see how the Blue Mountains did not get a single cent,” he added.
In January last year, the Blue Mountains Conservation Society released a statement on what sort of recovery process was needed in the aftermath of the fires. And it listed the protection, recovery and restoration of biodiversity as a priority, with increased funding for staff to carry this out.
The Blue Mountains City Council advised last May that 2,600 jobs were lost in the local region as a direct result of the fires. This was accompanied by a gross turnover loss of $560 million. And at the time, these setbacks were being compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown.
According to Shoebridge, the obvious reason the region was overlooked in the allocation of the funding was that local entities had no idea it was being handed out as no one from the state government made them aware of it.
Keeping them accountable
The $171 million distributed from the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund was only the first round of funding. And rather than secretly distribute the $250 million involved in the second round, the government opened up applications for the grants, which has only just closed.
Shoebridge is now calling for the Public Accountability Committee’s Inquiry into Integrity, Efficacy and Value for Money of NSW Government Grant Programs to be expanded so it can investigate the way that bushfire relief funds are being distributed.
As committee chair, Shoebridge requested the inquiry be established due to the overwhelming lack of transparency surrounding the allocating of hundreds of millions of dollars in public money. And so far, the investigation has been quite fruitful.
As Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to the NSW Greens justice spokesperson on Monday, he was on a break from a committee hearing that involved scrutinising the distribution of arts funding.
Later that day, the inquiry found that the Berejiklian government had slated an extra $20 million in funding to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in the lead up to the 2018 Wagga Wagga byelection, which is the electorate where the institution just happens to be situated.
The inquiry found last year that the NSW government had distributed 95 percent of $252 million in funding to councils in Coalition seats in the lead up to the last state election.
And of this, the premier personally signed off on $141 million worth of grants, with the accompanying paperwork subsequently being illegally shredded and deleted.
Unfortunate but not illegal
Following the council grant scandal being made public, the premier didn’t try to deny or coverup her wrongdoing. Rather, Berejikilian said distributing public money for advantage is a regular practice politicians partake in, so she was happy to accept the accusation of being caught pork barrelling.
“All governments and all oppositions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour,” the premier said. “It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time by every government.”
Shoebridge went on to explain that he’d been speaking with a lot of people in the community both in a professional and personal capacity and he’s found everybody to be “united in rejecting this idea that the premier could or should greenlight the deliberate pork barrelling of the electorate.”
“People are offended by it, as they should be,” he concluded. “Public funds need to go on the basis of needs, not political connections.”
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.