We told you so: Coalition pinged again over regional grants

by Jommy Tee | Aug 11, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

The Coalition has departed the government benches, but its malfeasance and corruption is still being revealed, writes Jommy Tee.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) last week published another manifest of maladministration by the former Morrison government.  In its own understated way the Auditor-General applied the blow torch to, and excoriated, the $1.4 billion Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF).

Stripping away auditor-speak and replacing it with punter-speak – the BBRF was found to be a heap of steaming cow dung.

The ANAO detailed exactly what Michael West Media (MWM) uncovered months earlier – the program was an election grift for the Coalition, predominantly for the National Party.

MWM detailed the 2019 and 2022 pre-election grant gerrymandering for Rounds Three and Five of the program, when the most worthy projects were dumped by dodgy minister and their staffers and instead awarded grants to dud applications.

We highlighted how the bureaucratic fix was designed by compliant public servants to cover-up ministerial interference in the program.  It was dubbed “continuous improvement” and coincided with the two pre-election rounds.

Rampant rorts in the regions: how it happens

Not surprisingly, not one of the key Nationals (Michael McCormack, Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud) involved in the program’s administration displayed any contrition for their actions. Theirs is a mantra of “we followed and worked within guidelines”. Of course no mention that the guidelines were rigged in a way to allowed this scam to take place.

Former Liberal Party ministerial panellists, Simon Birmingham, Dan Tehan and Sussan Ley have also remained schtum.

If the former government stood for anything it surely must have been running corrupted grants programs.

What do the unlucky punters say?

A number of unsuccessful Round 5 applicants contacted MWM after we ran an exposé on the corrupted fund last year.  All the applicants that approached us did so on the condition of anonymity and feared publicly speaking out in case it jeopardised future attempts to apply under the program or other government programs.

White-hot anger and immense frustration were felt among the unsuccessful applicants. Scathing comments about the process were made, including how the former government had them over a barrel.

One unsuccessful Round 5 grant applicant, who scored highly and on merit and rank should have received funding, advised that they did not wish to share the feedback from the department, preferring “not to risk undermining that relationship [with the government] by sharing the details of the feedback beyond our project’s partners.”

A common theme was the unfairness of the process, the lack of transparency, and strident criticism of then ministers who were abusing the system through their interventions.

The Pork Henchmen: Morrison’s ministerial spies give Australian National Audit Office the cold shoulder

As applicants have no idea of what score their application received, they were unaware of their comparative place in the merit list.

This was an effective way to stifle criticism of the former ministers and program – especially as the former ministers’ decisions cannot be challenged.

Round Five grants were announced in October last year with letters to unsuccessful applicants being sent out shortly after that.

The typical letter that unsuccessful applicants receive portrayed the program as being competitive and merit-based.

Unfortunately, your application was not successful as it did not rate sufficiently high against all of the assessment criteria when compared to other applications in this round.

Importantly, the advice does not provide the applicant with their score or rank. To do so would have exposed the gross inequities of the program and the level of ministerial manipulation.

Another applicant (who scored highly) and by rights should have received a grant requested formal feedback from the department. They were told that their application was recommended by the assessment staff to the ministerial panel to be funded. They were not told the score or rank of their submission.

The applicant was told of slight improvements that could be made to the submission, and advised to reapply. This dangled a carrot of hope in front of the applicant should they apply in future rounds, and of course stymied public criticism by the applicant.

In this applicant’s case we know that 57 applications were awarded grants by the ministerial panel that scored less, and in some cases far less.

Another applicant, again one with a high scoring application, diplomatically expressed disappointment at not being successful, and iterated that they were encouraged to resubmit for the next round.

In that applicant’s case, we know that over 100 applications were awarded grants by the ministerial panel that scored less. So much for competition and merit.

Another applicant was flabbergasted to find that Senator Bridget McKenzie was on the Round Five ministerial panel which awarded grants, especially after her role in interfering in the distribution of community sports grants (aka #sportsrorts) was exposed. “Being exposed as rorters of public money has changed nothing about their behaviour.”

A further applicant had applied in an earlier round but missed out on a grant and was advised at the time they had gone very close to getting funding. This applicant reapplied for Round Five taking onboard all the advice from the department only to find that they too were unsuccessful again.

According to the conclusions in the ANAO report:

As the program has progressed through the first five rounds, there has been an increasing disconnect between the assessment results against the published merit criteria and the applications approved for funding…

Many questions were put to various ministers over the series of articles we ran on the BBRF. In particular, we sought specific reasons top ranking and high scoring projects were denied a grant by the ministerial panel.

Not a single minister provided a response.

The department previously conveyed to us that the program is competitive and merit-based and has robust guidelines ”to ensure the most worthy projects receive funding.”

The auditors do not agree.

Jommy Tee is a long-time career public servant, having worked in the policy development field for 25+ years as well as an independent researcher interested in politics, current affairs, and Nordic noir.

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