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

by Jommy Tee | Apr 19, 2022 | Government

The faceless Coalition aides conscripted to do the leg-work for the government’s billion-dollar pork barrelling program have spurned requests to comply with the ANAO audit, leaving ministers unaccountable for their spending before the Election. Jommy Tee reveals how Coalition MPs have the inside running on pushing for projects in their electorates.

The Audit Office (ANAO) has encountered a severe lack of co-operation from ministerial advisers, who have refused to participate into the current audit into the controversial Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF). 

The ministerial advisers play the key role in filtering information from the Department of Infrastructure which runs the $1.4 billion program and in assisting the ministerial panel in determining who gets grants under the program.

Michael West Media (MWM) has been informed that the first draft of the Audit Office into the beleaguered and controversial BBRF contains damning commentary about the administration of the program. 

Serious deficiencies have been highlighted including lack of robust reasoning as to why particular grants were awarded by the various ministerial panels.

We have previously exposed how applicants that ranked last were given grants and inexplicably applicants that ranked first by the department were not awarded grants.

Advisers staying schtum

MWM believes the Audit Office invited up to 10 current and former ministerial advisers who played a role in one or more BBRF rounds to meet the auditors and explain the decision versus scoring discrepancies, but not a single one of those advisers agreed to meet. 

It is believed the advisers were attached to the offices of the respective ministerial panel chairs. 

The chairs of the ministerial panel change across rounds of the program, but we know from our own investigations that Rounds 3 and 4 were chaired by Michael McCormack and the most recent Round 5 was chaired by Barnaby Joyce.

At this stage, the ANAO has not used its powers to compel the advisers to front up and answer the auditor’s questions.

The auditor’s final report is scheduled to be released in June – well after the election, which is unfortunate timing for voters where integrity and corruption in grants programs is a potential key election campaign issue.

The connection between the advisers and the ministerial panel

As the BBRF deals with hundreds of applications in each round of the program, ministers would not get into the weeds and do their own analysis but would be reliant on their advisers’ input.

In turn those advisers take departmental assessment of scores and ranking of applicants and overlay political considerations (read electorate information) which manipulates the outcomes.

This program, like other corrupted grants programs administered by the Morrison government skews heavily to government and marginal seats. Round 5 of the program skewed funding 73 per cent to Coalition seats, 16 per cent to Labor and 11 per cent to independents.

The ANAO draft report also describes advisers developing project lists separate to the departmental briefings.

but not a single one of those advisers agreed to meet.

It is believed that the department aided and abetted this by giving the ministers’ offices lists of applications received – before the department’s assessment work had been completed.

The advisers then used the departmental data to add electorate information and obtain input from government politicians. The input from the government politicians was then provided to the panel.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first

This information in the draft audit report appears to confirm previous media coverage on the shonky process from last year’s Round 5 grants where a Coalition MP, Dr Anne Webster (the member for Mallee), told a local radio station how government politicians got the chance to really push for projects.

It appears that government politicians get a leg up and advance access to colour-coded spreadsheets – something that is denied to non-government members of parliament.  A one-sided contest in the ballot for special treatment in a scheme that is meant to be merit-based and competitive.

We also understand the draft auditor’s report found it difficult to reconcile the merit assessments produced by the department against the funding decisions taken by the ministerial panel. 

The records of the ministerial panel examined by the auditors do not seem to explain the reasons why grants were given to poorly ranked applications.

Little wonder that the ANAO was keen to talk to advisers. 

We encourage them to compel the advisers to answer questions.

Gross failure of accountability

It is also no wonder that the one recommendation that Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected from the Thodey review into the public service was in relation in bringing Ministerial advisers and staffers under formal written code of conduct.

We raised the issues of ministerial panel interference, colour-coded spreadsheets, tricky definitional changes to avoid reporting of ministerial interference and outlined the corrupt practices within the program.

And of course we still await movement from the government on getting anywhere near implementing a federal integrity commission.

From our investigations it is clear that grants administration would benefit greatly if there was official public release of the assessment results along with those applicants who receive grant funding.

If the assessments are robust and a ministerial panel has sound reasons for taking the decisions they have then what are they afraid of?

We approached the ANAO but they advised they would not be commenting on a specific audit.

The Department of Infrastructure responded by stating it was “working with the ANAO to provide appropriate information to assist with the audit report” it was also not be commenting on the report prior to its scheduled June release.

We also put questions to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. The office did not respond.

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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