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Morrison government grants are still providing shock and outrage

Sophie Scamps says the review into the Morrison government's $2 billion hospital grants program is "gobsmacking".

Sophie Scamps says the review into the Morrison government's $2 billion hospital grants program is "gobsmacking". Photo: AAP

It has been three years since the issue was the first big integrity scandal to hit his government.

But decisions about the distribution of taxpayer-funded grants made by former prime minister Scott Morrison, and under his government, still have the power to shock Canberra.

The sports rorts affair, where public money went to projects in key marginal seats ranked in a colour-coded spreadsheet, forced out former minister Bridget McKenzie in 2020.

It was only the first time voters would be outraged by so-called “pork barrelling”.

Handing down his sixth audit of a Morrison government scheme this week, the Commonwealth auditor found nearly half of a $2-billion pre-election community hospital fund went to key seats.

More striking was an out-and-out allegation that rules had been broken or, in the case of three particular projects, thrown out the window altogether.

Or that there had been a “conscious decision by senior health officials to not comply with finance law”.

Action needed

Sophie Scamps, an independent MP who won a Liberal seat at last year’s election partly on a promise to clean up politics, called the report “gobsmacking” and said it needed to be acted upon.

“The Albanese government hasn’t done enough,” Dr Scamps told TND.

“We need to prevent corrupt behaviour in the first place.”

She announced a bill last month seeking to stop the practice of ministers awarding plum jobs to their mates and now says grants should be next.

“We need a legislated framework to protect taxpayer funds from politicisation,” she said.

One particular grant, the auditor noted, was given to a company which self-described as a provider of drug rehabilitation services to young women.

It came with a supporting statement of fewer than 100 words – all of which had been lifted from its website.

But on the campaign trail, Mr Morrison even personally visited the winner – the Esther Foundation in Perth – an evangelical and faith-based rehabilitation facility for young women that was given $4 million.

Those payments stopped when Esther collapsed shortly before a state parliament inquiry heard patients were told to heal through prayer, discouraged from being gay, exposed to “extreme” doctrine and, some alleged, sexually and psychologically abused.

The grant had been classified as risky by a government lawyer who found there was no legal basis for awarding the money – but the then health minister Greg Hunt pressed ahead.

A low watermark

The government’s critics are right to ask if episodes like this will be remembered as a low watermark.

The Esther Foundation’s directors put the rehab provider business, a registered charity, into liquidation in April.

But the same company seems to still officially run another charity, a “foundation” still set up to receive generous tax-deductible donations in exchange for the promise of looking after young women.

Esther’s education fund says it brings young women from the Pacific to Australia to study; it is also five months behind on lodging this year’s paperwork.

But Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh did not offer comment on Wednesday when asked if it should at least be undergoing a review, more than one year after these disturbing allegations emerged.

To be fair to him, it’s not clear whether any of his colleagues would have anything to say either, had the scandal crossed into their portfolio.

Grin and bear it?

Government contractors have been centre stage at a Senate inquiry this week, and so has the growing disparity between them and the government departments that used to do their work.

It has sometimes seemed like the public service top brass responded to the alleged breach of state secrets by one of the biggest, PwC, with a curious passivity.

“Isn’t a possible breach an alarm bell in your mind (…a) possible criminal consequence?” Senator Barbara Pocock asked one official.

It took until eight years after the commission of an alleged crime for the latest PwC scandal to come to light.

But it’s only getting darker herein, as every example from history shows.

The Pentagon first warned in the 1980s that it was losing billions to contracting fraud via its defence procurement systems.

But attempting reform of something so big and bound up in vested interests (and so boring) makes no sense politically – so they have just kept doing business with some of the worst offenders. 

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