NSW government faces more pork-barrelling claims over bushfire relief program

By Shannon Jenkins

February 3, 2021

NSW public service commissioner Katharina Lo would not have endorsed John Barilaro if she knew then what she knows now. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

A New South Wales parliamentary committee will examine whether bushfire relief funding is being used to target Coalition-held electorates, after some of the worst bushfire-affected areas missed out on the first round of grants.

The Public Accountability Committee has been examining the skewing of grants handed out under the Stronger Communities Fund, and is set to deliver a report on its findings in March.

Prompted by media reports, the committee will broaden its focus to examine bushfire grant funding, committee chair David Shoebridge said on Tuesday.

“We have heard damning evidence about the $250 million Stronger Communities Fund in particular and its use as a blatant pork-barrelling scheme prior to the last state election,” he said in a statement.

“The committee has now become aware of another $177 million for bushfire relief funding allocated to projects in New South Wales between the federal and state governments and is extremely concerned this may be another pork-barrelling scheme.”

Read more: NSW council grant scheme ‘worked in reverse order’, inquiry hears

Last month Michael West Media reported that NSW Labor electorates secured just $2 million (1.1%) of the $177 million, while Greens seats received nothing. Further, Coalition MPs were aware of the scheme weeks ahead of Labor and the Greens, who found out at the same time as the public.

Shoebridge noted that some of the worst bushfire-affected areas have missed out on the grants so far.

“A further $250 million is still to be allocated under the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund and the committee will be examining the process in detail. The NSW government must explain how money that was intended to help communities rebuild from bushfires has been allocated, explain to heavily-impacted communities why they missed out, and ensure the current round of funding goes to communities that need it most, regardless of politics,” he said.

The committee will accept submissions into bushfire relief funding until February 22.

Earlier this week the committee heard that, a few weeks before the 2018 Wagga Wagga by-election, Premier Gladys Berejiklian had personally signed off on a $20 million grant for the local Riverina Conservatorium of Music.

Chris Hanger, deputy secretary, public works advisory and regional development at the Department of Regional NSW, told the inquiry that despite the premier having made an announcement about the funding, the money had only been ‘reserved’ as the government had not yet received a business case for the project. The government is still waiting on that business case.

The 2018 by-election was triggered by the resignation of of disgraced former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, at the time, was in a secret relationship with the premier.

Read more: Tapped phones, Berejiklian and the disgraced pollie: How ICAC drove the NSW government into crisis

Last month the State Archives and Records Authority found that the premier’s office had breached the State Records Act when one of its staffer destroyed notes related to the Stronger Communities Fund.

According to the staffer, the documents had shown Berejiklian had played a role in approving grants under the Stronger Communities Fund.

The premier has previously been accused of pork-barrelling after it was revealed 95% of the stronger communities grants had been allocated to councils in coalition electorates ahead of the 2019 state election.

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