The NSW parliamentary inquiry into the allocation of grants via the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund has confirmed it will be referring NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the NSW Auditor General.
The parliamentary committee has been investigating the Stronger Communities Fund, in light of the fact that 95% of grants were allocated to Coalition and marginal districts.
In its final report, the committee made clear that the responsibility for the “maladministration” of hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds lays squarely at the feet of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, as well as Deputy Premier John Barilaro.
‘Clear abuse of the grants process’
The report determined there was a “clear abuse of the grants process,” finding that the Premier and Deputy Premier personally approved projects, but failed to adequately document the decision-making process.
In Ms Berejiklian’s case, the destruction of documents and working notes in relation to the allocation of grants was declared unlawful by the State Archives and Records Authority earlier this year, although the watchdog said it wouldn’t pursue legal action.
Other findings included overlooking guidelines, so that councils that weren’t merged became eligible for grants, and “deliberately devis[ing methods] to accommodate ”pork-barrelling schemes”.
Now, ICAC and the NSW Auditor General will be tasked with investigating the conduct.
NSW taxpayers deserve transparency and accountability
Since the allegations of corruption first came to light last year, there has been widespread calls for greater transparency in the way the funds are allocated. After all, this is taxpayer money.
The parliamentary inquiry includes a range of recommendations to improve the grants process and provide oversight into allocations, as well as stricter approval processes.
And, as part of a broader inquiry into NSW grants, the committee will continue to look into other public funding schemes, including the administration of bushfire relief funding; for which Ms Berejiklian previously came under fire.
When asked to comment on the allegations, the Premier’s office referred to statements made in Parliament by Liberal MP committee member Natalie Ward who claimed the report is a “biased, partisan sham and a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
“There is no attempt at bona fides here on the part of the non-government members. It’s just a cheap, political attack by people with no ideas and no vision for NSW,” she claimed.
It’s the kind of response we’re used to from the Premier’s office – publicly shrugging off any sense of accountability.
Other allegations against the Premier also referred to ICAC
But the allegations against the NSW Premier are getting harder to ignore. Recently the NSW Upper House also referred the NSW Premier to ICAC, alleging that she failed to declare a conflict of interest when dealing with road upgrades.
In that regard, there are concerns that Ms Berejiklian met with Mr Maguire about an upgrade to a road more than 100km from his Wagga Wagga electorate, which runs past two investment properties he hoped to use as short-term rental accommodation.
It also alleges the Premier failed to disclose a conflict of interest when planning the M9 Outer Sydney Orbital; a project in relation to which Mr Maguire stood to obtain a financial benefit from.
Last year Ms Berejiklian was forced to admit to her long-standing secret relationship with Mr Maguire during an ICAC inquiry into allegations of dodgy business deals he conducted during his tenure as MP of Wagga Wagga. That inquiry is continuing.
The New South Wales public deserves answers and many hope that both ICAC and the NSW Auditor General will pick up the referral and investigate further. Both have the ability to investigate impartially, independently and if necessary, refer any illegal activity to the police and for criminal investigation.