Michael Pascoe: How to justify pork rorts

Clubs with considerable poker machine and other revenue fared well in BBRF funding, Michael Pascoe writes.

Clubs with considerable poker machine and other revenue fared well in BBRF funding, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND

How to justify making grants not recommended by the relevant department? Easy – just say you do.

That’s what is disclosed by Freedom of Information requests into the wealth of federal government not-recommended-but-given grants.

And when National Party ministers get their hands on a pork barrel, public servants’ analysis of projects’ suitability and priority seems to matter particularly little.

To recap, in Round Three of the Building Better Regions Fund, 34 per cent of the 330 grants were not recommended by the department.

In Round Four, 30 per cent of the 163 grants were not recommended.

(And it’s no doubt purely coincidental that Labor electorates received only 12 per cent of the money granted in the Round Three infrastructure stream, 9 per cent of Round Four and 16 per cent of Round Five, but that’s another story.)

With an ANAO audit of the $1.38 billion (and counting) BBRF under way, it is a reasonable guess that attention will focus on the third of projects that copped cash despite the department’s recommendations.

It is not known which of the grant winners were on the not-recommended list but if again left to guess, I’d be looking at successful businesses that trousered taxpayers’ money, among others.

The office of Auditor-General Grant Hehir is auditing the $1.38 billion Building Better Regions Fund. Photo: AAP

For example, clubs with considerable poker machine and other revenue, such as the Finley Returned Soldiers Club in Sussan Ley’s seat of Farrer.

The FRSC scored $250,000 in Round Four towards the estimated $500,000 cost of upgrading “kitchen facilities and bathroom amenities”.

The club’s 2020 annual report shows it finished the year with a profit of $247,000 after allowing $215,000 for depreciation – thank you JobKeeper and ATO cash flow boost.

Poker machine receipts were down from $1.41 million in 2019 to $1.08 million, reflecting COVID lockdown shutting the club for 10 weeks.

The club still managed to donate $7351 to various community groups, down from $31,623 the previous year.

The Corowa Golf Club, also in Ms Ley’s electorate, scored the full $982,602 for the estimated cost of replacing “an existing irrigation system with a new, state-of-the-art, computer-controlled irrigation system”.

The Corowa golfers also had a good COVID.

Despite gaming revenue falling from $462,000 in 2019 to $411,000, part of normal operating revenue dropping from $3.14 million to $2.26 million, the club finished with a profit of $1.17 million before depreciation of $239,000.

JobKeeper, some water rights trading and government grants of $532,000 towards the irrigation project and shade sales made the difference.

Golf and bowls clubs seem quite frequent BBRF winners.

Also in Round Four, the picturesque Crescent Head Country Club on the water in Pat Conaghan’s NSW mid-north coast seat of Cowper won $1.31 million towards the estimated $1.74 million cost of adding a mini-golf course with recycled water irrigation.

Mixed results leave query on priorities

Again, hundreds of stories in the BBRF, some of them most worthy, some raising questions about priorities and the government’s integrity.

So how to justify straying so often from the advice of public servants who have gone through the applications to recommend the most deserving and beneficial?

The relevant minister for Rounds Three and Four, Michael McCormack, explained it thus:

“The regional spread of projects and funding across the regions relative to current and previous Australian government investments, was a key factor in the selection process. Selected projects address key infrastructure priorities in each region, taking into account Australian government priorities that align with the government’s intent of supporting regional Australia, focusing on economic growth and job creation.

“Each selected project impacts on their local community in a unique way and builds on their local, state and federal funding to contribute to the objectives of the BBRF.

“Please note that although not recommended by the department, all the projects were assessed as Value with Relevant Money.”

Translating that into English and cutting to the chase, the panel wanted to be sure the pork was spread around. The rest of the words are just padding.

PM sets the standards

The Morrison government has plenty of form by now with rorting – the use of taxpayers’ money for party political ends.

The key element of the original #sportsrorts defence was that the second-rate applications that scored money were not ineligible. That is being recycled with the BBRF.

But the gold standard in grant rorting denial was set by Scott Morrison at the National Press Club in January last year.

When asked if there was nothing wrong as a matter of principle in using public funds for political interests and entrenching the government’s power, the Prime Minister served up the double of “I just reject the premise of your question” and “you can have an editorial on it”.

How do you justify grants not recommended by apolitical public servants after careful analysis, ignoring what may be the most urgent needs and the best use of scarce resources in regional Australia?

Easy – you just say you do.

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