Labor has asked the national auditor-general to examine yet another commonwealth grants program after it was revealed Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton went against his department’s recommendations to personally select a list of projects for funding.
Documents obtained by the ABC under freedom of information laws show the Department of Home Affairs had recommended 70 projects to receive a combined total of $17.5 million under the Safer Communities Fund.
However, ahead of the 2019 federal election, Dutton cut millions of dollars of funding from 19 of the recommended projects and diverted the money to projects of his own choosing — most of which were in marginal and government-held electorates.
Shadow minister for home affairs Kristina Keneally on Thursday said she had written to the auditor-general asking him to investigate the incident.
“In the lead-up to the 2019 election, it seems Peter Dutton was not trying to make communities safer, but rather he was using taxpayers’ money to make government and marginal Labor and independent seats safer for the Liberal Party,” she said.
“According to the ABC, more than 90% of all Safer Communities Fund round three grants approved ahead of the 2019 Federal Election were in Coalition or marginal Labor and independent seats.
“Australians deserve to know whether their community missed out on needed safety equipment, like CCTV cameras, and being safer because of Peter Dutton’s pre-election Safer Seats Rorts wheeling and dealing.”
While Dutton’s overruling of his department’s merit-based recommendations was permitted, the ABC investigation revealed that Home Affairs had warned Dutton that his decision could face criticism.
“As this is an open, competitive, merits based program, should you decide to make funding decisions that do not reflect the order of merit, you may be criticised either in the media, or by the Australian National Audit Office,” the ministerial briefing said.
Keneally has also asked the auditor-general to consider whether it was appropriate for Dutton to provide a one-off discretionary grant to the National Retail Association after the organisation made a donation to the Liberal-National Party, likening the situation to the sports rorts.
“Given that former minister Bridget McKenzie resigned after she was found to have breached ministerial standards for failing to disclose a conflict of interest with an organisation to which she awarded a grant, Peter Dutton’s actions raise questions as to whether a similar breach of ministerial standards has occurred,” she said.
Early last year an investigation by the Australian National Audit Office found former sport minister McKenzie had used grants from a sports infrastructure program to target key electorates ahead of the 2019 federal election.
McKenzie will appear before the inquiry into the scheme on Friday.