In too deep: when Gladys’ and John’s rorts go wrong

by | Jan 5, 2021 | Government

Gladys Berejiklian’s defence of pork barrelling will hardly enthuse ratepayers in Batemans Bay, or taxpayers for that matter. The local government debacle over a leisure centre, which got the tick from Deputy Premier John Barilaro in dubious circumstances, is the quintessential object lesson in why governments should do their homework before they start throwing money around for political reasons. Elizabeth Minter reports.

Thanks to Coalition pork barrelling before the 2019 federal and NSW elections, the community of Batemans Bay is losing its 50-metre pool, which is being downgraded to a 25-metre indoor pool, local assets are being sold off, and ratepayers will paying through the nose for years to come for a sub-par facility. All because a project that didn’t have a solid business case was pork-barrelled, in defiance of grant conditions, to the tune of $51 million.

For decades the Batemans Bay community had wanted a performance space and an indoor heated 50-metre pool to complement its outdoor 50-metre pool. In 2016, when Eurobodalla Shire Council bought (with no community consultation) a site that used to house a bowling club next door to the existing pool, it appeared the Bay community would finally get their heated 50 metre pool. The long-awaited arts centre would be built on the bowling club site and the revamped leisure centre on the existing pool area.

The Batemans Bay Regional Aquatic, Arts and Leisure Centre (BBRAALC), a pet project of the Eurobodalla Shire Council, was announced in 2017. Just a thought bubble at the time, the project was turbo charged thanks to the taxpayer-funded largesse in 2019. Unfortunately, the project was not subject to any credible scrutiny.

And ever since it has been one financial disaster after another. Despite the $51 million in grants, Eurobodalla Shire Council now faces a $19 million (and growing) deficit to cover the cost of building the aquatic centre. The council is cutting services, selling off reserves and has just evicted dozens of community groups from the Batemans Bay Community Centre so it can lease out the facility to obtain rental income. The Community Centre has reportedly been earmarked as a site for a retail/residential development, even though Batemans Bay is awash with unused retail space.

And this is just to fund the construction of the centre, which is then projected to run at a loss for at least the first 10 years, creating an ongoing burden for Eurobodalla ratepayers.

Project #72 trumps Project #1. Batemans Bay Aquatic Centre

In 2018 an independent team of experts assessed more than 150 applications for the Regional Cultural Fund grants and ranked the 116 successful projects in the order they should be funded.

Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information legislation revealed that the NSW Government largely ignored the experts’ advice, and all but $3 million was spent on projects in Coalition seats.

Deputy Premier John Barilaro (“my name is John Barilaro, call me Pork-Barilaro“) and then arts minister Don Harwin even signed off on cash for at least eight projects that were not recommended for funding. Some 56 projects were funded in 23 electorates, 20 of which were held by the Coalition.

A Barilaro Affair: how the Barilaros ended up with the Clubhouse when the Club went under

The Bateman’s Bay Leisure Centre project was ranked No 72 by the independent assessors, while a Bega gallery project ranked No 1 in the funding priorities. The Leisure Centre was awarded $8 million, but the Bega project did not receive a cent.

Moreover, it appears the project was promised the $8 million three months before the relevant funding round had even opened. Round Two of the Regional Cultural Fund opened on July 1, 2018 and closed on September 21, 2018, yet the local paper The Bay Post reported on March 26, 2018, three months before Round Two opened, that Eurobodalla Shire Council would receive $8 million. The NSW Government is stumping up $26 million in total for the project.

The federal government chipped in $25 million via the Federal Regional Growth Fund, with the final funding announcement made just 10 days before the 2019 federal election was called.

No comprehensive business case

As a prerequisite of the funding, the project was required to submit a full business case. Yet a comprehensive business case has never been released. When the Eurobodalla Shire Council finally released the application, after blocking its release three times, it showed that the Council had submitted a consultant’s draft business case containing a clear rider that the consultant’s report should not be used for grant funding application.

The so-called “business case” projected operating cost over-runs. Yet the assessment criteria for the Regional Cultural Fund grant required evidence that an “appropriate analysis has been undertaken (i.e. a financial and/or economic appraisal), and the ongoing feasibility is shown to be viable“.

Eurobodalla Council continued to fight attempts by ratepayers to scrutinise the planning assumptions and costings of the project under “commercial confidentiality”, even after the tender for construction had been completed and the project was under way.

The Eurobodalla Council’s own Audit, Risk & Improvement Committee has never been provided with financial details of the project on the grounds of “commercial in confidence”.

Furthermore, Eurobodalla Council has not fulfilled its statutory project financial reporting obligations regarding the project to the Office of Local Government. The Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, holds the neighbouring electorate of South Coast.

An “evacuation centre” capability was later added to the Leisure Centre’s long list of functions. However, this “instant” evacuation centre is on flood-prone land, with limited access and egress according to experts. Eurobodalla Council has acknowledged that adding the evacuation functionality was driven by the need to obtain further funding from grants.

Then for reasons again not made public, the council decided not to include the bowling club site into the footprint of the leisure centre. This meant all the arts and aquatic facilities had to be squashed into half the space. So now the proposal only has a 25-metre pool, a much reduced auditorium (500 seats down to 350), no space for future expansion and the loss of the 50-metre outdoor pool. Furthermore, the smaller theatrette means it is not economic to have travelling productions, further reducing the capacity of the centre to pay its bills. And the “art gallery” that was originally included in the concept plan has been reduced to hanging space in the foyer.

And the federal government’s pork barrelling failed, with the federal electorate of Gilmore, which includes Bateman’s Bay, the only NSW seat that Labor won from the incumbent Morrison government in the May 2019 federal election.

As a local resident said:

“The next time you hear about pork barrelling and think ‘At least some communities will get the benefits from the funds,’ think again. In the long run, we all pay (sometimes twice, as both taxpayers and ratepayers).”

Michael West Media put a number of questions to the Eurobodalla Shire Council but it had not responded by the time of publication. 

Coalition Zombie Grants: a slush fund to be reawakened for the next election

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Minter

Elizabeth Minter

Liz began her career in journalism in 1990 and worked at The Age newspaper for two 10-year stints - as a reporter, sub-editor, layout sub, and Letters Editor for eight years. She also worked at The Guardian newspaper in London for more than seven years as a sports sub-editor and a production editor. In a former life, she was a professional tennis player for seven years, winning the US Open junior title in 1983 and representing Australia in the 1984 Fed Cup. She has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Letters (Hons). Her Twitter handle is @LizMinter_

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    great stuff – exposing breathtaking corruption we now know to be just how the COALition do business

    in China known as ‘facilitation payments’ – in NSW known as ‘keeping your seat’ ?

  2. Avatar

    We laugh off pork barrelling, but it is misappropriation of our money by the Liberal Party for the Liberal Party election campaign.
    I call it criminal, but it seems these days that governments have total immunity from scrutiny and prosecution.

  3. Avatar

    Corruption can be very costly!

    Following rules is often jettisoned when a decision maker is paid to ignore them, or a promise is made to ‘look after them’ once the brouhaha dies down.

    Will we see any biting consequences, ie gaol time and swingeing fines, to deter this recurring every election?

  4. Avatar

    Great work Liz, and the first question that pops into my head is ‘Are there any innocent bystanders here’ when it comes to Federal, State, and Local administrations? Nope.

    The NSW LNP/IPA and other associated boosters and entities in relation to Corruption Inc. is legend, and as I have repeated many times elsewhere, the Rum Corps never left town, it simply went deeper and wider with its corruption, it’s spread like a cancer. You may think that that analogy is not appropriate, however, bear with me “Cancer cells are cells that divide relentlessly, forming solid tumors or flooding the blood with abnormal cells. Cell division is a normal process used by the body for growth and repair. A parent cell divides to form two daughter cells, and these daughter cells are used to build new tissue or to replace cells that have died because of aging or damage. Healthy cells stop dividing when there is no longer a need for more daughter cells, but cancer cells continue to produce copies. They are also able to spread from one part of the body to another in a process known as metastasis.[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cancer_cell

    As for the local Eurobodalla Shire Council, if the local natives know what’s good for them, they could remove the lot at the next Council elections, ensuring that former corrupt officials do not run again as ‘Independent’s’.

    How the hell Berejiklian or Barillo are still ensconced where they are beats the hell out of me, it merely points to the absolute corruption that runs throughout the entire NSW administration, which is aided and abetted by the MSM https://kangaroocourtofaustralia.com/2020/10/20/liberal-party-supporters-rupert-murdoch-kerry-stokes-and-peter-costello-control-australian-media-and-thats-why-we-need-a-royal-commission/

    As this story and its stable mates show, it’s one large stinking hulking mess.

  5. Avatar

    Well researched Liz 🙂
    Adding further to this is the possibility that Council lied under a GIPA request for release of the 2017 Economic Report that they stated was not available due to the Third Party not permitting release. That statement is now being investigated by the Information Commissioner. Eurobodalla Council also withheld the business case from the Office of Local Government to assist in their final review of the project.

    In the end, under pressure and with reluctance they released it to the OLG who then responded saying the projected costings appeared sound however the OLG had reservations on Council’s ability to fund the project expenditures after the complex was opened (estimated at $2m per year including depreciation). This reservation was withheld from the Councillors prior to their vote to accept construction tenders.

    https://www.beagleweekly.com.au/post/you-be-the-judge-was-critical-info-withheld-from-councillors-would-it-have-made-a-difference

    A Code of Conduct complaint has been issued against the Council’s General Manager over the withholding of this information.

    Anyone interested in discovering more details on the crackling of this pork roast might be interested in visiting this link
    https://www.beagleweekly.com.au/mackay-park

  6. Avatar

    Does my head in. Tripodi (NSW ALP) and Bob Askin (NSW Liberal ) and now this lot who are in government (NSW Liberal) suggest we breed are particular pig in NSW.

    • Avatar

      It all began in 1788 and has proceeded unabated since.
      NSW has always been a cradle of corruption.

    • Avatar

      They need more party members..

  7. Avatar

    Very impressed to date by your articles – Pity they don’t reach a broader audience…?

  8. Avatar

    What I can’t believe is that this multi million dollar project has been given the ‘go ahead’ without any scrutiny of its financial viability by those who are supposed to oversee the actions/decisions of local government.

    The Office of Local Government, in their assessment of council’s Capital Expenditure Review of the project stated,
    “the built facility is projected to operate at a loss for the first 10 years of operation. Council must be satisfied of the community demand for the facility as proposed, and the ability to subsidise the new facility from the General Fund. Council should also consider the potential adverse effect of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the projected revenue of both the built facility and council. While Council has generally satisfied the OLG’s capital expenditure criteria, it is important to note that this response should not be construed as an endorsement or approval of Council’s proposal.”

    Councillors asked if the could be advised by the Audit Committee before they approved the construction tender, but were told by the GM that the tender was “commercial in confidence” and therefore could not be provided to the Committee. This of course is incorrect.

    The community are not getting what they want. We were not consulted about the loss of our 50m pool – that was a staff decision.
    Everything is now half sized as council, for some unknown/confidential reason refuses to utilise the old Bowling Club site as part of the development.
    How does a shire with an aged demographic pay for a $19m blow out?

  9. Avatar

    All the public negativity about the Eurobodalla Shire Council is directly related to no Councillor leadership, and weak councilors.

  10. Avatar

    Please let us know if this revealing article makes into other media. We want to know what pressure might be applied to our Mayor and her voting bloc in the run up to September’s elections.

  11. Avatar

    Isn’t it time we we able to look at other systems of “governing” and not be constrained by what we currently endure? Time and time again we receive similar coverage (which is appreciated, thank you) of very dubious practices. The conclusions that those making these decisions do so in “confidence” and there are negative consequences that flow. Transparency is feared and to be avoided at all costs and exposure is sadly revealed when it is too late with no effective consequences for those who have expedited these decisions. Please let’s develop a better system of public administration that has credibility and consequences for those who are responsible………………..to follow established processes is not working, why be afraid of change….its natural:)

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