You could almost hear a collective audible sigh when a report by the Australian National Audit Office was released recently, detailing its findings on the Morrison Government’s misuse of $2 billion for the Community Health and Hospital Program.
The ANAO found that funding in many cases was ethically unsound and there were instances where rules and finance laws were deliberately breached.
The audit office found 45% of funded projects were located in what the Australian Electoral Commission regarded as marginal electorates, 24% were in electorates categorised as fairly safe and the remaining 31% were categorised as safe.
Further the ANAO report noted that the Department of Health’s administration of the grants involved “deliberate breaches of the relevant legal requirements and the principles underpinning them”.
“Application processes were not fully consistent with the principle of achieving value for money, and [the Department of] Health undertook limited due diligence before recommending funding,” the audit office wrote.
Here we go again
The report found the department failed to develop grant guidelines for seven of 108 grants, and in at least three instances “this represented a deliberate decision by senior management not to comply with finance law”. However, even where guidelines were developed, they were found to be inconsistent with Commonwealth grant rules and guidelines of “robust planning, transparency and probity”.
$4m was given to the Esther Foundation in Western Australia, which was reportedly endorsed by Scott Morrison personally. The Esther Foundation is now in voluntary administration after allegations of sexual and psychological abuse.
Are we surprised?
After the ‘sports rorts’ scandal in 2020, allegations surfaced in 2021 that Peter Dutton ‘cherry picked’ projects eligible for the Safer Communities Fund, diverting almost half of the total funding pool away from recommended projects to one’s he personally selected.
Should pork barrelling be made illegal?
Around the same time in NSW, Gladys Berejiklian had allegations of pork barrelling also levelled at her Government, to which she responded ‘So what?’
The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has not yet delivered it’s findings into its investigation into the secret relationship Gladys Berejiklian was having with Wagga Wagga MP Daryle Macguire around the time she, as Premier, directed tens of millions of dollars to the small NSW town.
At the time she plainly explained to anyone and everyone that the spending was purely intended for political gain – there were seats to be won.
So the release of the ANAO report now reads almost like a “good to know” document, because after all, it’s a bit like shutting the gate after the horses have already bottled.
Besides, as usual, typically nothing is done about these things anyway – they’re transactions related to the ‘business of government’. Unfortunately, these funds are also taxpayer money, and they should be spent with due care.
Of course, this opens up an old conversation that we keep having and are yet to make any real headway on, about whether it’s finally time to make pork barrelling illegal.
Wasted money, when our health systems are ailing
What’s particularly irksome about the Federal Government’s misuse of funds through the local health and hospitals programme is that when the pandemic hit in 2020, The Federal Government, the NSW Government and others implemented lock downs and border closures and mandated vaccines based on the narrative that Australia’s health system would not have the capacity – beds, staff and equipment to cope if a large percentage of the population fell ill from Covid-19 and needed hospitalisation at the same time.
Of course, they couldn’t see the pandemic coming, but Australians dutifully stayed home and wore masks in an effort to “stop the spread”.
Many businesses shut down, and quite a good number got vaccinated in good faith that they were doing the decent thing by saving hospital beds for those who might really need them.
In the meantime, Governments did little to invest further in the current health system, except purpose-built Covid-19 isolation facilities in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia – which reportedly cost more than a billion dollars combined and all of which have now been “mothballed” and locked away.
Fast forward to 2022, and a damning report on the NSW regional health system was released which found hospital cooks and cleaners looking after patients, emergency departments without doctors, misdiagnoses and critical medical errors.
Moving further along to 2023, we have a mental health crisis unlike has ever been seen before, putting further strain on the already ailing system.
For the Morrison Government to simply waste $2 billion of critical health funding, without due care and strategic forethought, AND be able to do so without much in the way of scrutiny and public oversight paints a damning picture of ethics and governance in Australia.
We elect governments not only to act in our best interests but to also plan strategically – not to simply consider Australia’s future in terms of the next election cycle.
Can we expect better from the current Labor Government? It’s difficult to know, the recent PWC scandal, and the refusal by several government agencies including Treasury, the Reserve Bank, Defence and the AFP, to immediately sever contracts paints a picture of weak leadership.
While there is great hope for the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which will be led by Paul Brereton, it’s clear that water-down legislation will leave the Commission as powerless as its state-based counterparts (for example, Independent Commission Against Corruption), because it cannot prosecute.