Someone online asked me and others to explain why we could not vote for the Morrison government (not that I ever would), I replied:
“The constant lies, misogyny, racism, idiocy, petulance, corruption, pork barrelling, religious nutjobbery, hatred of expertise, shirking of responsibility, shifting of blame to the blameless, the stealing of credit from the creditable. #WhyIWantChange”1
This is the fourth instalment and deals with the government’s pork barrelling. The first instalment dealt with the government’s constant lying and their misogyny1; the second with their racism, and their use of it, as well as the extraordinarily idiotic things members of the government say2; and the third with their petulance and corruption3.
Pork barrelling is an old term, coined in the US in the 1860s, to denote spending in particular electorates in an attempt to get the electors to vote for the political party in power which has provided the pork. In Australia, it has been around for a long time and perhaps most famously led to the resignation of Keating government minister Ros Kelly in 1994 after Kelly intervened and delivered questionable grants to marginal seats under the Community, Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities Program4.
However, under the Morrison government, pork barrelling has reached an industrial scale. Every grant program can be used to spread the barrels of pork around to safe Coalition seats or marginal seats the coalition hopes to win. The schemes used for pork barrelling include: the Community Sport Infrastructure Program (Sports rorts); the Commuter Car Park Fund (Car Pork); the Female Facilities and Water Safety scheme; the Mutual Understanding, Support, Tolerance, Engagement and Respect scheme; the Stronger Communities scheme: the Communities Environment Program; the Showgrounds upgrade scheme; Community Development Grants scheme; the Regional Airport upgrade grant scheme; the Small and Medium Enterprise Export Hub; the Regional Jobs and Investment Program; the Country Universities Centre fund; the Pest and Weed grant scheme; the Bushfire Recovery fund; the Drought Communities Program Extension; the Safer Communities grant scheme; the Building Better Regions Fund.
The Community Sport Infrastructure fund: Grants to sporting clubs were doled out based on whether they were in electorates the government wanted to hold onto or believed they had a chance of winning from the Labor Party or independents. Senator Bridget McKenzie was sacked from the ministry, not for the rorting of the grants, but for a conflict of interest in being a member of a club that was given a grant. As further details have come out it is clear that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and his office were up to their respective necks in this pork barrelling5.
The Commuter Car Park Fund (CCPF): This was designed to invest in commuter car park upgrades that encouraged greater use of public transport, especially along rail corridors. The pre-election budget in 2019 announced 13 new CCPF projects totalling $149 million, and all (yes, all) of those initial projects went to seats held by the Liberal Party, including six in highly marginal NSW and Queensland electorates5.
The Female Facilities and Water Safety scheme (FFWSS): This was created to “remove barriers” for women participating in sport “in our regions”, and to develop and upgrade community pools in remote and regional areas. The grants were part of a closed non-competitive process, and North Sydney pool obtained a $10 million grant it hadn’t asked for from a fund supposedly for regional centres. The North Sydney pool is of course not regional, and there is no real issue with the women’s facilities. It is in the federal electorate held by Liberal Trent Zimmerman5.
Because the Coalition was desperate to win the marginal seat of Pearce, held by then Attorney General, Christian Porter, which was at risk of being taken by the Labor Party in the 2019 federal election, the “Northern Suburbs Aquatic Facility” was given $5 million in federal funding under the Coalition’s much-criticised FFWSS program. The FFWSS had no guidelines, no tender process and required no application form. The program was supposedly meant to fund female change rooms, but 80% of the $150 million FFWSS budget went to just 11 Liberal and National Party-held seats, most of them marginal. Oddly, the Northern Suburbs Aquatic Facility project will not commence until 2026-27 which is four years after the project funding is finished6.
The Mutual Understanding, Support, Tolerance, Engagement and Respect scheme (MUSTER): Six taxpayer-funded grants were approved in the key Queensland marginal seat of Longman, then held by Liberal National MP Terry Young, through the Department of Social Services in the month before the last federal election in 2019, including $177,000 for the Bribie Island and Districts Junior Rugby League Club. The club received funding from the $60m Mutual Understanding, Support, Tolerance, Engagement and Respect (MUSTER) initiative, one of a number of programs distributing grants on a closed, non-competitive basis, requiring invitations from the department to apply7.
The Stronger Communities scheme: Tens of thousands of dollars in grant money was handed to a gun club and a church with links to federal government MPs. The Stronger Communities grant scheme awarded more than $40,000 total to the Port Bouvard Pistol and Small Bore Rifle Club and the Clovercrest Baptist Church, which have links to Liberals. The Stronger Communities program gives local MPs a gatekeeper-type role in the application process. Only organisations that have been formally invited by MPs are eligible for a grant7.
Communities Environment Program: In April, 2019, two members of government announced environmental funding for community groups in a marginal electorate before the grants program had even opened. In now-deleted Facebook posts, the Victorian Liberal MP Chris Crewther published video of himself and then environment minister, Melissa Price, visiting parts of his electorate of Dunkley to announce tens of thousands of dollars in grants to environment organisations as part of the government’s Communities Environment Program. But environment officials told Senate estimates hearings that, at the time, applications for grants had not opened, funding had not been appropriated and no money would be awarded until mid-year8.
Showgrounds upgrade scheme: A $20m federal government program to upgrade showgrounds delivered just $2.2m to 11 Labor-held seats while the Nationals received more than four times as much – $9.2m – for 10 seats. The regional agricultural show development grant program delivered $3.4m to the agriculture minister, David Littleproud’s seat of Maranoa alone, more than the entire allocation for opposition-held seats8.
Community Development Grants: CDGs are not supposed to be purely regional grants – some of the biggest winners are rich Liberal-held city seats – but it is the National Party that has done by far the best out of the way this barrel has rolled. Under this program, in 2019, 68 Labor seats averaged $836,000 in CDGs, Liberal seats $2.086 million, LNP seats in Queensland $2.473 million – and the 10 National Party seats scored an average of $6.712 million. However, to be really “lucky”, one should be in Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England. It was showered with $28.9 million in CDGs8.
Regional airport upgrade grants: Then Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, Michael McCormack announced on June 13, 2020, that grants totalling $41m to upgrade regional airports around Australia, but these grants included $4.5m (11% of the total) for Merimbula Airport and $152k for Tumut Airport. Both of these airports are in the electorate of Eden Monaro which had a by-election on July 4, 20208.
Small and Medium Enterprise Export Hub: This program is administered by the Department of Industry Science, Energy and Resources, the minister for which is Karen Andrews. The initial round of the grant program was announced on March 13, 2019 and seven of the eight grants were in Coalition electorates, with the eighth spread over Coalition and one Labor electorates. The second round was announced on May 11, 2020 and this was more evenly distributed. However approximately two thirds of all grants went to Coalition electorates8.
Regional Jobs and Investment Program: This was a Coalition promise rolled out after the 2016 election. Two projects in the NSW electorate of Gilmore received funding, despite not being backed by the department’s process. Liberal-held Gilmore was one of the most marginal electorates following the 2016 election and the Coalition ultimately lost it to Labor in 2019. Four projects in the Labor electorate of Eden-Monaro were recommended for funding, but were not approved by the ministerial panel. Overall, the panel did not fund 28% of recommended grant applications and approved 17% that had not been recommended9.
The Country Universities Centre fund: The federal government’s decision to locate all three of Queensland’s Country Universities Centres in the electorate of Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud has also raised eyebrows. And in NSW, a centre has curiously turned up in development plans for Young High School – despite there being no proposal for one. Young is in Nationals former leader Michael McCormack’s Riverina Electorate10.
The Pest and Weed grant scheme: The Department of Agriculture manages a grants scheme to help parts of the country get rid of pests and weeds, and over the last couple of years has handed out just over $25 million. Out of the $25 million in grants, the electorate of Maranoa (National Party’s David Littleproud’s electorate) received the lion’s share at $9.4 million. Coming a distant second was National Party MP Barnaby Joyce’s electorate of New England, with $2.9 million. These grants were not applied for, they were ‘invitation only’, ‘targeted’ or ‘restricted competitive’10.
The Bushfire recovery fund: This directed grants to the timber industry, coalition donor Visy and community infrastructure that was not in accordance with fund guidelines. There was even a $194,000 grant to Snives Hives, a business in the unaffected leafy Upper North Shore suburb of St Ives to “establish a Meadery to make honey wine on the Central Coast”. The federal Labor electorate of Macquarie was devastated economically by the 2019-2020 bushfires. Macquarie comprises predominantly the state electorates of the Blue Mountains, held by Labor MP Trish Doyle, and the state electorate of Hawkesbury, held by Liberal MP Robyn Preston. And according to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, the Blue Mountains economic loss was twice that of Hawkesbury’s – about $66 million compared to $33 million. In the recent round of $177 million funding from the federal and NSW Coalition governments for bushfire recovery, Hawkesbury communities were awarded grants totalling $4 million. The Blue Mountains received nothing11.
The Drought Communities Program Extension: This gives councils in eligible areas up to $1 million for drought relief projects. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an extra 52 councils would be eligible for the program, during a visit to Orange and Blayney on Tuesday, January 26. However, councils that did not meet the eligibility criteria were given grants during the 2019 election campaign. McKenzie was the responsible minister for the program in the lead-up to the election. Councils were deemed to be eligible if they had below average rainfall in 12 of the 24 months leading up to the cut-off date and had 17 per cent of employment linked to agriculture, forestry or fishing. Fourteen councils were announced as eligible during the 2019 election campaign, after the caretaker period had commenced, but six of the 14 areas didn’t meet the 17 per cent employment threshold. Eight of the 14 areas also had a rainfall deficiency of less than 50 per cent. Thirteen of the councils that got funding are in seats that were ultimately held by the coalition11.
The Safer Communities grants: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton personally slashed millions in Safer Communities grant funding from organisations that were strongly recommended by his department to improve community safety, and used the funds to support his own handpicked list that did not follow his department’s recommendations. Dutton was warned by his department, in a previously confidential ministerial briefing, that overruling the merit system could draw scrutiny from the Australian National Audit Office or from news organisations. The Department of Home Affairs recommended funding the 70 highest ranking projects to a combined value of $17,504,115. However, on January 31, 2019, Dutton reduced funding for 19 of the highest-scoring grant applications, via a handwritten note, by a combined total of $5.59 million. These applications were all from local councils, with some of them located in remote or regional areas. Some of these funds were used to support grants for two local councils that his department recommended should not be funded at all in the lead up to a by-election in a highly marginal seat11.
The federal government redirected cash from a $31 million safety program into a selected group of churches and cultural events after a key minister rejected department advice that ruled the projects ineligible. Assistant Minister Jason Wood handpicked the projects to receive taxpayer funds for security services and equipment in a decision that cut funding to recipients that scored more highly in the Home Affairs department’s analysis of their merit.
The Safer Communities Fund Round 5 Infrastructure stream provided $31 million for security to protect against racial or religious intolerance, with officials recommending 80 applications on merit. Wood cut funding for the 80 projects by an average of 10 per cent in order to redirect the $3 million to other projects not recommended by the department6.
The Coalition used five rounds of its Safer Communities grants program, to fund 225 applications were awarded funding worth $47.9m against the recommendations of the Home Affairs Department; Peter Dutton was then home affairs minister, with the assistant minister Jason Wood, who visited some of the applicants who received grants. The decisions to award grants against the recommendations of the department had been influenced by the lobbying of MPs and senators. It raised concerns about applicants having direct access to decision-makers. The audit report found the program favoured Coalition-held seats in the lead-up to the 2019 election, and was critical of how grants were awarded with more than half being without a “clear basis for the decision”. Some of the projects funded were even ineligible under the guidelines12.
Building Better Regions Fund: Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and a secret group of government ministers intervened in the selection of more than a third of the projects funded from a $200m regional grant fund. In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2019 election, McCormack announced $200 million in spending under the third round of the Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF) for 330 projects across Australia. Under the Commonwealth Grant Rules, ministers must disclose to the Finance Minister when they approve grants which go against the recommendations of their department and give reasons for doing so. A letter from McCormack to then Finance Minister Mathias Cormann stated: “Of the 330 projects approved under round three of the BBRF, a total of 112 as listed … were chosen by the ministerial panel against the department’s recommendations.” That was all13.
As if to cap off this story of pork barrelling, Barnaby Joyce has dissolved the national advisory body established less than two years ago by his predecessor, Michael McCormack, to scrutinise major water projects. This came after an expert member of the body, Stuart Khan, expressed concern, in letters to other members, that the government’s funding announcements to build dams had been made for “brazenly political purposes” and without the advisory body having been given an opportunity to consider the proposals. The advisory body was not consulted before the announcements of $5.9 billion in funding – to build the Urannah and Hells Gates dams in north Queensland14.
With this government, it never stops. While Ros Kelly was rightly pilloried in the media in 1994 when she was caught pork barrelling, this government seems to get away with it more often than not from some of the major media outlets. While this lack of honesty is expected from the appallingly bent Murdoch media, to have it from the Nine media is a disturbing development. Maybe the Nine media isn’t up to the standard of its Fairfax predecessor.