Michael Pascoe: I was wrong. The CDG rorts are worse than I thought

The Community Development Grants are 25 times bigger than #sportsrorts.

The Community Development Grants are 25 times bigger than #sportsrorts. Photo: TND

I was wrong. The Community Development Grants program isn’t the Coalition’s hot $1.126 billion political rort – it’s the Coalition’s hot $2.5 billion-plus political rort.

It’s not 11 times bigger than #sportsrorts, it’s 25 times bigger and counting.

The government has a number of corrupt slush funds, but none more blatantly designed to buy votes with taxpayers’ money than the CDG scheme purpose built in 2014.

As reported last week, analysis of the government’s GrantConnect website showed Coalition seats “luckily” scored 75.5 per cent of last year’s CDG money, while Labor seats managed just 19.9 per cent.

Of the 68 federal seats Labor now holds, 22 have never received a cent in CDGs while those that did score well tend to be of particular political interest or history.

And the Coalition has quietly arranged to keep this particularly rich pork barrel rolling for another six years.

As Michael West Media has posed, why buy one election when you can buy three?

Billions of dollars in corrupt pork barrelling can seem a little abstract, so using Vince O’Grady’s spreadsheet analysis, I’ve chosen an example of a frontline seat and those that adjoin it to demonstrate how much an Australian Electoral Commission boundary costs or benefits communities.

The Labor-held seat of Hunter in regional New South Wales abuts three National seats to its west and north.

It is a particularly rich green line that separates Hunter from the Nationals’ Calare, Lyne and New England.

Since the Coalition invented CDGs in 2014 through to and including the 2019 election year, only $108,000 in CDGs show up on the GrantConnect site for the good folk of Hunter.

Source: AEC map; TND graphic

If they just skipped across the electoral boundary to the west into Calare, they would have benefitted from a slice of $6.1 million.

If they moved north-east to Lyne on the coast, they would have picked up $14.9 million.

But to be really “lucky”, they should have moved north to Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England to be showered with $28.9 million in CDGs.

(And it’s not just CDGs in New England. It seems if you can’t pick up a grant in those parts, you haven’t got your hand out.)

CDGs are not supposed to be purely regional grants – some of the biggest winners are rich Liberal-held city seats – but it is the National Party that has done by far the best out of the way this barrel has rolled.

In 2019, the 68 Labor seats averaged $836,000 in CDGs, Liberal seats  $2.086 million, LNP seats in Queensland $2.473 million – and the 10 National Party seats scored an average of $6.712 million.

That contrast is stark on the ground.

Aside from the three National Party fiefdoms, Hunter adjoins five Labor and one Liberal-held electorates to the east and south.

A thin finger of Liberal-held Robertson touches Hunter’s southern boundary. Robertson has been awarded $3.5 million in CDGs.

Of the five Labor-held seats, Newcastle and Shortland have not received a cent over the six years. Paterson scored $110,000, Macquarie a more respectable $982,000 and Dobell an astonishing $9.45 million.

Swabs may be called for in Dobell, or perhaps it’s the exception that makes the rule.

Or maybe it’s purely coincidental that Dobell and Macquarie can’t be considered “safe” Labor seats any more – they were only held at the last election by margins of 1.5 and 0.19 per cent respectively.

Source: AEC map; TND graphic

No, given the way CDGs have been used, it’s probably not coincidental.

By comparison, Shortland, Newcastle, Paterson and Hunter went into the election with Labor enjoying margins of 10, 13.8, 10.7 and 12.5 per cent from the 2016 election.

The Labor seat that received by far the most – Solomon in the Northern Territory, $32.6 million – was held by the Coalition until the 2016 election.

The second “luckiest” Labor seat over the past six years was Queensland’s Griffith with $23.47 million.

Labor only held the seat with a margin of 1.4 per cent in 2016.

The third “luckiest” was Gilmore with $17.97 million – it was a Liberal seat won by Labor last year.

Also doing particularly well for a Labor seat has been Eden-Monaro with $16.7 million. I wonder why …

By comparison, the biggest single CDG so far disclosed by the government is $35 million towards establishing a Petrie campus for the University of the Sunshine Coast campus in Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson.

The CDG racket has been getting both bigger and more skewed as it has gone on.

The GrantConnect site shows $199 million has been dished out so far this year, compared with $286 million over all of 2019.

The government is budgeting a billion dollars in CDGs towards the next election and is keeping your pocket open for a further picking for the one after that, if it gets the chance.

As previously reported, the CDG process was designed by the newly elected Abbott government to avoid any embarrassing involvement of public servants in divvying up the spoils, as subsequently happened with the McKenzie/Morrison #sportsrorts scandal, and the $100 million environment grants program that was also conveniently established before the 2019 election.

It is left to the government – the politicians and their staffers – to “identify” suitable projects for CDG largesse.

Catch 22 – you can only apply for a share of the loot if you have been “identified” as being politically worthy.

According to Michael West Media’s Jommy Tee, the CDG rot really appeared to set in when Scott Morrison and his former chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, took control of Treasury in late 2015.

They established a system of “topping up” CDGs conveniently in sync with the election cycle.

Bridget McKenzie, Josh Frydenberg and Dave Sharma “top up” a CDG rort in April 2019. Photo: AAP

Curiously for such a rich source of funding, Michael McCormack’s 310-page Ministerial budget statement last year devoted only two paragraphs to it:

The Community Development Grants Programme (CDG) provides funding for critical projects where the Australian government has identified the need for new or upgraded facilities. Projects range from new sporting facilities, to upgrading community centres and small-scale infrastructure projects.

CDG projects have contributed to local economies, created jobs and boosted confidence within a region. Since 2013-2014 the government has provided funding of $2.5 billion, including for 455 projects from the 2016 election.

The $105,000 for the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme received nearly twice as many words.

Voters in Wentworth, Australia’s richest electorate, no doubt needed to have their confidence boosted by $31.3 million in CDGs.

To the $14.8 million over the scheme’s first six years, the GrantConnect site now adds $16.5 million towards the Sydney Swans and NSW Swifts constructing a development centre at Moore Park.

This latest grant appears to be another case of “topping up” a CDG.

It was going to be $15 million when it was announced by the trio of  Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, then-Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie and Liberal candidate David Sharma during the election campaign.

The seat at that stage was held by independent Dr Kerryn Phelps – she wasn’t invited to the announcement.

And the CDGs, environment grants and #sportsrorts are not the end of the Morrison government’s pork barrel story.

Yes, of course there are more shoes to drop – but absolutely no sign of a federal integrity commission.

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