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New documents show four federal ministers overruled advice from their departments to award grants – largely in key Coalition seats. By Karen Middleton.

Morrison ministers overrule advice on grants

The deputy leader of the National Party, David Littleproud.
The deputy leader of the National Party, David Littleproud.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Four federal ministers overruled their departments and funded grants in 2021 that they were advised should be rejected, including an unapproved addition to a swimming pool upgrade in the speaker’s electorate and an agricultural research project in the electorate of the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce.

In a letter to parliament, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has revealed that Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Michaelia Cash, Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management and Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud, Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt and Minister for Senior Australians, Aged Care Services and Sport Richard Colbeck all made grants that their departments recommended should be rejected.

This comes as major party candidates promise billions of dollars in grants focused on marginal seats ahead of the May 21 election, including grants for sporting facilities.

The disclosure of non-recommended grants has been made under 2020 rules that require ministers to note any grant decisions that have contravened departmental advice. The government tabled details of the payments out of parliamentary session on April 12, two days after the election was called.

The letter outlining grants made against departmental advice in the calendar year 2021 shows the four ministers made five allocations between them, worth $213,510 in total.

About half of that was for a grant by David Littleproud – $112,667 for a research project at the University of New England in Armidale, in Barnaby Joyce’s seat, under a program known as Stronger Farmers, Stronger Economy.

The biosecurity project was to trial identifying and mapping the location and movement of shipping containers that may harbour exotic pests.

The disclosure does not say why the department refused to approve the grant and the minister’s office did not provide any explanation for why it overrode the departmental advice.

Littleproud told The Saturday Paper that hitchhiker pests pose a biosecurity threat to Australia and that UNE is recognised as one of the country’s best researchers of the problem.

“After subsequent consultation with the department, it was clear this grant was not an overlap of other programs already in existence,” he said.

Keith Pitt approved a $55,000 grant to a group of landholders in the New South Wales town of Deniliquin, in Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s seat of Farrer, to fund a project to improve water quality and reduce carp breeding in the Edward River.

In his letter revealing the grant, Pitt says the application was one of seven about which he had sought additional information. He implies he sympathised with the authors of that particular application, defending their apparently rudimentary bid on the basis that they are farmers.

“For the application in question, it was clear that the proposal would achieve improved water quality and invasive pest remediation consistent with the selection criteria,” Pitt writes. “The assessment panel considered the level of detail provided was insufficient to make a sound assessment, which one may expect from individual farmers who are not accustomed to seeking such grants.”

In a brief further explanation, Pitt’s office said the minister had disagreed with the original finding that the application did not provide sufficient detail to address the selection criteria.

It said the program should support greater community involvement and reiterated that “the applicants in this instance are not experienced grant writers”. It suggested that current water quality and the state of invasive species demonstrated the need for the project.

Michaelia Cash funded legal assistance in two overseas child abduction cases, one related to the United States for $23,522.10 and one to New Zealand for $14,788.51. The grants were made under the legal financial assistance scheme, covering legal representation and other expenses. In both cases, the department had assessed that there were “low prospects of success” and they should not be funded.

But the brief explanation says the minister determined that funding legal support would provide “significant benefit to the applicant” at a “relatively low likely cost”. In the New Zealand case, she differed from the department’s assessment of the financial hardship the applicant would face in pursuing the legal action and considered that hardship to be “sufficiently serious” to justify spending the money.

It is not clear whether either applicant won their case. Details of the applicants and the cases were withheld for privacy reasons.

Richard Colbeck made the smallest non-recommended grant, of $7533, to put a sunshade over a swimming pool at the Conondale Sports and Recreation Club in the Queensland seat of Fisher, held by Andrew Wallace.

Wallace became speaker in late November last year when MP Tony Smith stood down ahead of his retirement. The precise date of the funding grant is not provided.

The government had already allocated $170,000 to renovate the existing pool at Conondale under the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program – funding the department had supported.

Colbeck’s office reported that $12,980 of the original grant to install accessibility stairs had not been required because the Queensland government had ended up paying for them. The club had requested extra federal money for the sunshade instead but the department rejected the application.

The minister’s office overruled it, determining it was within the original scope and would encourage greater use of the pool by children learning to swim. It is not clear what reasons the department gave for opposing the grant.

The total figure of $213,510 for grants against departmental advice is much less than was spent against advice in 2020, when Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood allocated $2.6 million in non-recommended grants.

Wood trimmed the allocated funding for other projects within a $31 million community safety program, redirecting almost 10 per cent of it to projects the department had not endorsed.

The then deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, made another 49 grants in 2020 that his department did not recommend – out of 163 made under the Building Better Regions Fund – but because the department did not specifically recommend against them, the government redacted the details.

McCormack also disclosed at the time that 31 of the 163 grants were in the electorates of members of the panel that decided them. Three were in his own seat of Riverina; another 12 in Littleproud’s electorate; two in the seat of Page held by McCormack’s assistant minister, the Nationals’ Kevin Hogan; and 14 in the seat of Mark Coulton, then minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government.

The extent of grant funding, particularly without tender processes and against departmental advice, is featuring in the current election campaign, along with a push for a federal integrity commission.

In the election context, the major parties have promised about half a billion dollars between them so far in grants to sports facilities across Australia, to be delivered if they win.

Guardian Australia reported this week that of those promised grants, about $41 million has been pledged for projects that were previously funded through the so-called “sports rorts” scheme, the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program.

In 2020, the auditor-general found the government had spent about $100 million on non-merit-based grants in Coalition target seats through the program, ahead of the 2019 election.

At this current election, teal independent candidates in several high-profile contests are advocating that the expenditure of public money on politically motivated grants should fall within the scope of a future national integrity commission.

Dr Monique Ryan contesting Kooyong, Zoe Daniel running in Goldstein and Allegra Spender in Wentworth all told The Australian Financial Review they supported an integrity commission being able to examine government spending programs and contract tenders.

Major party candidates’ Facebook pages reveal the billions of dollars in grant funding being promised in marginal and other swinging seats since the March 29 federal budget and ahead of the May 21 election.

In the marginal Victorian seat of McEwen, which Labor holds and the Liberals are targeting, incumbent Labor MP Rob Mitchell has promised $18.6 million in grants and other funding for sports and school facilities, community safety and roads. Of that, $15 million is earmarked for an upgrade of the Macedon Ranges Regional Sports Precinct, which on April 6 Mitchell announced a Labor government would fund.

One week later, his Liberal opponent, Richard Welch, pledged the same. Welch has made $1.97 billion of promises. Despite being a candidate, not an MP, Welch’s Facebook page boasts that he is “delivering $1.6 billion for the Beveridge Freight Terminal” along with millions more on roads, school and sports facilities, as well as closed-circuit security cameras.

Despite all the public outrage over wasteful spending, these kinds of promises are replicated in seat after seat, by Labor, Liberal, the Nationals and other candidates, right across the country. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Morrison ministers overrule advice ".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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