NSW community grants fund ‘brazen pork-barrel scheme’

Inner West Council candidates Pip Hinman, Steffi Leedham and Markela Panegyres. Photo: Peter Boyle

A New South Wales parliamentary inquiry has found that the Gladys Berejiklian government’s Stronger Communities Fund improperly allocated public money on a politically partisan basis in the lead up to the 2019 state election.

The Public Accountability Commitee’s report was unequivocal, finding “a clear abuse of the grants process” had occurred when 95% of the total $252 million allocated was given to Coalition-held or marginal electorates.

The NSW Legislative Council committee released its findings on March 30. The Stronger Communities Fund issued grants to councils affected by the government’s forced amalgamations in 2016.

Inquiry chair and NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said the fund was ”an alarming example of the lack of transparency and accountability” in grant programs and described it as an election “bribe”.

“The fund was originally established to assist councils created from the NSW government’s failed council amalgamations,” he said, “but morphed into a brazen pork-barrel scheme.

“Ultimately the Coalition designed a scheme with so few checks and balances that $252 million of public money was handed out on a purely political basis to sort out the Coalition’s political problems, to gain an advantage in the 2019 state election and to punish any council that had objected to being forcibly merged.”

The NSW Office of Local Government conceded in the inquiry it had not done any merit assessment of the projects that received grants.

The inquiry found Hornsby Shire Council, in Sydney's north, received a $90 million grant, more than a third of the entire program. According to the committee, this excessive payment went “against the original intent of the Stronger Communities Fund” because it was a politically-motivated attempt to resolve legal disputes involving Hornsby Shire Council and Parramatta City Council.

The committee recommended that the NSW government update its guide for grants administration, establish enforceable minimum requirements and publish half-yearly reports on current grant processes.

It also urged the NSW government to create a website to publish all grant application information and projected timelines. The committee said the power of the NSW auditor-general should also be boosted and recommended the inquiry report and its evidence be sent to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. This, however, will require a resolution from the NSW Legislative Council.

Council candidate Pip Hinman, who is standing for the Socialist Alliance in the Inner West Council, said the premier’s affirmation last year that this was “pork barrelling” and that “it was not illegal” shows how out of touch her government is.

“This government has turned the state into one gigantic Corruption Inc,” she told Green Left.

“Its corrupt attempt to quell anger over the undemocratic and forced amalgamation of local councils, including the three councils that now form the Inner West Council, is now being exposed.”

Hinman is standing with Markela Panegyres and Steffi Leedham on a People Before Profit ticket in Damun (Stanmore) ward. They are campaigning for the councils to be de-amalgamated because, among other things, rates for residents in the former Marrickville Council are set to rise considerably in July.

Meanwhile, a $335 million government grants program for not-for-profit organisations to build “community infrastructure” has been allocated in a politically biased way, the April 4 Sydney Morning Herald reported, including to private schools and for the upgrading of private golf courses.

The NSW Community Building Partnership program allocates an annual $300,000 to each electorate for “infrastructure projects that deliver positive social, environmental and recreational outcomes, while promoting community participation, inclusion and cohesion”.

But Sydney’s richest schools are among those receiving such a grant, with almost $1 million going to private schools last year.