Michael Pascoe: Grants rorts? Wait, there’s more …

The Morrison government’s pork barrelling is being exacerbated via COVID stimulus projects, Michael Pascoe says.

The Morrison government’s pork barrelling is being exacerbated via COVID stimulus projects, Michael Pascoe says. Photo: AAP/TND

#Sportsrorts was the most egregious of the Morrison government’s grant frauds and the $3 billion Community Development Grants are by far the largest and most blatantly corrupt, but they are by no means the only pork barrels rolling through key electorates.

Regional seats in general and Queensland electorates in particular are being fed a steady diet of federal largesse for everything from parks and gardens to funding “Messy Play Days” at toy libraries. (Really – $19,935 for seven Messy Play Days, the stuff of ministerial press releases.

And now the potential political influence of federal handouts is being turbo-charged under the headline of COVID stimulus projects.

Unsurprisingly, the money is heavily skewed towards Coalition seats. It’s not just the fossil fuel industry that is being looked after.

Lost somewhere along the way is any concept of what responsibilities a federal government should shoulder.

It is a little bemusing to see the usual suspects claiming the government should sell off the ABC and have no role in public broadcasting while said government funds a fashion parade in Dalby ($14,500, David Littleproud, LNP, Maranoa) and Lithgow’s Halloween street festival ($47,000, Andrew Gee, National, Calare).

The importance of Queensland delivering the seats for the 2019 Morrison win is well reflected in LNP seats doing disproportionately well out of the slush funds.

For example, spreadsheet sleuth Vince O’Grady has consolidated 2020’s $158.5 million in Building Better Regions Fund grants from the GrantsConnect site – the LNP with 15.2 per cent of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives but scored 23.5 per cent of the moola.

The 10 National Party electorates in the southern states did even better – 5.8 per cent of the seats but 33.9 per cent of the cash.

The Michael McCormack-led National Party continues to receive a disproportionate level of grant funding.

And there’s Bob Katter’s seat of Kennedy, doing by far the best of the independents – representing 0.7 per cent of the House but collecting 4.9 per cent of the grant money.

The Liberal Party was closer to being proportionate – 29.1 per cent of the seats, 26.9 per cent of the money.

Labor holds 45 per cent of the seats, but its electorates received just 5 per cent of the money.

The skewing is to be expected given the title and declared aim of the program: “The $1.04 billion Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF) supports the Australian government’s commitment to create jobs, drive economic growth and build stronger regional communities into the future.

Bob Katter’s Queensland seat of Kennedy is awarded 4.9 per cent of Building Better Regions Fund grants. Photo: AAP

“The fund invests in projects located in, or benefiting eligible areas outside the major capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra.”

The fund operates two streams, one for infrastructure, the other the “Community Investments Stream: Funds community development activities including, but not limited to, new or expanded local events, strategic regional plans, leadership and capability building activities”.

In other words, just about anything, including Messy Play Days.

Any local government or not-for-profits in the defined areas can apply for grants from $5000 to $10 million, which is a big improvement on the CDG racket whereby the government itself makes a political decision as to who is allowed to apply in the first place.

But the scheme still throws up plenty of oddities and runs as a tool for locking in the Coalition’s non-metropolitan base.

For example, the Gold Coast, an LNP stronghold, is Australia’s sixth-largest city and increasingly an extension of Brisbane – but it qualifies as “regional” for BBRF.

To Brisbane’s north, the Noosa Council (Lew O’Brien, LNP, Wide Bay) picked up $20,000 in June towards its Noosa Alive Festival. An earlier round of BBRF gave $2.5 million for the schmick redevelopment of the Sunshine Beach Surf Club.

Deputy Speaker Llew O’Brien and Deputy PM Michael McCormack at the opening of the Sunshine Beach Surf Life Saving clubhouse on February 14. Photo: AAP

Sunshine Beach is “regional” in the sense that it is not a capital city.

It is also an extremely attractive and affluent area (reflecting, in my biased opinion, that it has the world’s best beach and the benefits of Noosa without the need to wear make-up and bling to get a cup of coffee).

It has a median house price about 60 per cent higher than Sydney’s and 360 per cent higher than Caboolture on the dubious northern edge of non-BBRF “Brisbane”.

Meanwhile, the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program (yes, they keep coming) similarly keeps the government members’ media releases of Coalition beneficence coming.

On Mr O’Grady’s GrantsConnect consolidation, the $499 million LRCI spending last year was divvied up 32 per cent to Liberal seats, 19 per cent National (remember, just 10 seats out of 151), 16 per cent LNP, 27 per cent Labor (45 per cent of the seats), nearly 3 per cent for Bob Katter’s Kennedy and 3 per cent for the other independents.

Overall, the LRCI breaks 67 per cent for Coalition seats, 27 per cent Labor, and 6 per cent the remainder.

Mr O’Grady did a consolidation exercise of #sportsrorts, CDG and regional grants posted on GrantsConnect from 2013 up to the 2019 election – the better part of $2 billion. It broke down 24 per cent to Labor electorates, 70 per cent to Coalition seats.

Katter’s Queensland stronghold of Kennedy scored the most of any seat, $60 million, 3 per cent of the total.

Yes, the government is explicitly and carefully well disposed to Kennedy, the political bribes carefully measured.

Those who’ve been keeping up over the past year will remember this part of reporting the Australian National Audit Office’s #sportsrorts effort:

At 12.45pm (on April 10), the Prime Minister’s office emailed Senator McKenzie’s office to ask that a $500,000 grant in the seat of Kennedy – held by renegade independent MP Bob Katter – be dropped and the same amount instead be given to the Hawthorn Malvern Hockey Centre. The centre is in the electorate of Kooyong, held by Liberal frontbencher Josh Frydenberg.

Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign while Scott Morrison continues to be dogged by the #sportsrorts controversy. Photo: AAP/TND

Senator McKenzie’s office resisted, claiming the Kennedy project was “a very important one for the region” and the sport minister was due to visit the seat with the Liberal National Party candidate who had been lobbying for the money.

The sport minister’s office relented after the Prime Minister’s office pointed out the project had already received $3 million in funding through a separate grants program.

Unlike Mr Morrison’s #sportsrorts and CDG corruption (and here’s the relevant link to that one more time, just ICYMI), the regional slush funds have a mixture of causation and correlation.

Yes, the LNP and Nationals are stronger in the bush and therefore money aimed at the bush goes mainly to LNP and National seats.

But the unprecedented level of LNP and National pork barrelling also helps keep important regional seats in the government camp despite climate change and tax policies that are antithetical to rural communities’ best interests.

There also is the question of equity between city and country – poverty and disadvantage should be dealt with on an equal footing wherever it occurs, not dependent on the political colour and influence of the local member.

Incumbency is a great benefit when it means billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money can be deployed to maintain incumbency.

It’s crook and crooked and continues to get worse. Power ends up being its own ends.

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