NSW has a fine tradition of pork barrelling, which is the preferential distribution of public money to government-held electorates or marginal seats, despite the fact that most of the public considers the practice corruption.
And the ministers of the previous Coalition government were masters of it.
Former premier Berejiklian told the press that currying favour in this way was to be expected. Her deputy John Barilaro bragged that he was so into it that he had a nickname reflecting it. And while Perrottet was sent in to mop up his predecessors’ grants mess, it seems he was in on it as treasurer.
But these are different times. The new Minns government has promised to stop the practice that many consider should be a criminal offence. And last week, it passed the Government Sector Finance Amendment (Grants) Bill 2023, with the stated aim of ending the dodgy distribution of public funds.
Broadly, the bill makes it a requirement to follow the Grants Administration Guide, as well as provide that a minister ensures that when issuing a grant, it’s the best deal, whilst establishing that a specific website will include information about government grants, making it publicly available.
But Greens MLC Abigail Boyd said during the second reading debate on the bill, that while her party welcomes the reform, it hardly goes far enough in preventing further pork barrelling, and if Minns doesn’t come to the table with further promised changes, her party will push for it instead.
To be seen to be acting
“Far from being significant reform to hold ministers to account, this legislation is merely the enactment of a flimsy election promise, which is why it’s so weak,” Boyd told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
“After decades of corruption scandals in NSW politics, and after all of the inquiries and recommendations made to weed out that corruption, the new Labor government has chosen to do only the bare minimum,” she underscored.
The bill amended the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 (NSW) to ensure the Grants Administration Guidelines are followed. And it also stipulates that the use of public money must be “efficient, effective, economical and ethical”.
The Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 and its regulations have also been amended to ensure “the mandatory proactive release of certain government information” is posted on a relevant website, which will be open access.
“The new legislation only puts into force what was already required of a minister in approving and designing grants,” Boyd made clear. “It’s a nod towards being more accountable without making any significant inroads into preventing the scandals of the past happening again.”
Experts discretely overlooked
The Greens MLC said the passing of the laws is “a promising sign”, and Labor has assured more pork barrelling law reform is on its way. But, as it stands now, the government has overlooked dozens of recommendations from the ICAC, the Public Accountability Committee and the Grattan Institute.
Released last August, the ICAC report, known as Operation Jersey, made 21 recommendations.
Amongst these was the establishment of a cross-agency Community of Practice, led by a senior official, to govern grants schemes to ensure that public interest is primary. And another was that the process is opened up to all relevant members not just those making up government.
Making 13 recommendations, the Public Accountability Committee report suggested government allocate resources and staff to ensure that the risk of fraud in all future government grant schemes is mitigated, including the implementation of “fraud control measures and identification systems”.
“The guidelines for grants must be embedded in legislation to ensure total transparency, as well as the ability to improve and reform rules as potential issues arise,” said Boyd, referring to the fact that while the law now requires guidelines are followed, the premier’s office continues to govern them.
“ICAC was clear on this ask, and it must be implemented as soon as possible,” the politician underscored. “We can’t just leave the determination of grants guidelines to the government of the day and the relevant minister. They must be open to scrutiny from the parliament as a whole.”
Indeed, whilst then premier Berejiklian was head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, she was found to have been distributing grants for political and private gain, as well as destroying files to cover this up, and at the same time, her office oversaw an earlier version of the grants guidelines.
Pork barrelling as usual
Boyd said during parliamentary debate over the grants legislation that the Greens would support the bill, and she wouldn’t be moving any amendments, as it was early days of parliament, and her party would take it on good faith that the Minns government would later action further reform.
So, as it stands, the Minns government has made some minor changes that are supposed to ensure that pork barrelling does not occur, yet the rulebook is in its hands, and can be changed at its whim.
And as far as “currying favour” via the preferential distribution of grants, the path is wide open for Labor to partake in it.
“Without implementing the recommendations of Operation Jersey, pork-barrelling will still have a place in NSW politics,” Boyd continued. “The Greens have put the new Labor government on notice – either introduce legislative reform by the end of the year or I’ll introduce legislation of our own.”
The MLC added that the public wants pork barrelling shut down immediately, especially if reminded that when the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery grants were issued in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/20, one of the hardest hit areas, The Blue Mountains, received nothing.
Maintaining currying favour
“Labor’s legislation ignored the very first recommendation of Operation Jersey: to make guidelines as statutory regulations, and so subject to scrutiny from the parliament as a whole,” Boyd continued.
The bushfire grants were a joint federal and state initiative, which allocated $177 million to 71 projects, and whilst some of the hardest hit areas received not a cent, a skydiving adventure park, a showground and racecourse and a stadium were all provided funding in Coalition-held areas.
The Berejiklian government’s distribution of the Stronger Communities Fund in the lead up to the 2019 NSW election saw 95 percent of $252 million worth of grants distributed to Coalition areas, which was mainly carried out by the premier herself and to a lesser extent the deputy Barilaro.
“Currently, the grants guidelines can only be altered by the minister or premier themselves, entirely separate to parliament,” Boyd stressed, in the wake of the pork barrelling scandals that had rocked the previous government.
“This means that the same people with the power to abuse their position as ministers have a say in the rules that govern their behaviour, while the parliament representing the people in NSW, as a whole, do not,” the Greens Legislative Council member ended.