A senior New South Wales Public Service employee offered a council $90 million through the state government’s Stronger Communities Fund on the same day that council became eligible for the program, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.
The $252 million program was originally designed to compensate councils which had been forced to merge under former premier Mike Baird’s council amalgamation scheme. However, the guidelines were expanded to include non-amalgamated councils which had been affected by the scheme in late June 2018.
Cabinet documents have revealed that Premier Gladys Berejiklian, deputy premier John Barilaro, and former local government minister Gabrielle Upton signed off on the expanded conditions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Emails have also shown that Berejiklian approved funding for the non-amalgamated councils of Randwick, Canada Bay, Ryde and Waverley on June 25 — two days before the guidelines were officially broadened.
The inquiry heard that on the 27th, Office of Local Government chief executive Tim Hurst contacted Hornsby Shire general manager Steven Head to offer the council $90 million — almost a third of the entire scheme.
In response to questions over the short time frame between the guidelines being altered and Hornsby being offered the money, Hurst argued that it was “an excellent example of us being responsive and being able to turn around these applications in a way that councils have been asking for”.
The council had not been amalgamated, and had not been made aware that it could apply for the funding prior to the offer. Hornsby mayor and NSW Liberal Party president Philip Ruddock has previously argued that his council deserved the funding after its failed merger with Ku-ring-gai Council.
During questioning, Head agreed with Greens MLC David Shoebridge’s statement that he had “found out about the opportunity and the fact that you’d won the prize all in the same interaction”.
Labor MLC John Graham noted the grant process “worked in reverse order”.
“The premier approved the grants, the guidelines were then finalised, then Hornsby Council were told they had won the grant if they could submit a grant application,” he said.
The NSW government was accused of pork-barrelling earlier this year after it was revealed that Berejiklian had approved more than $100 million in funding for councils in Coalition-held seats ahead of the 2019 NSW election. Barilaro also approved more than $4 million for councils in his own electorate.
The revelations came just months after the Australian National Audit Office released the report which sparked similar accusations and an inquiry into the federal government’s handling of a sport grant scheme.
The inquiry has previously heard that Hurst didn’t receive any signed documents from the premier or Barilaro authorising grants, which Graham described as “different to virtually every decision in government”.
“You’re not telling me that the premier of NSW is signing off hundreds of millions of dollars verbally … her office emailing you the results. That couldn’t be what’s going on here,” he said.