Bushfire Rorts: Coalition targets bushfire recovery funds for Coalition seats

by | Jan 26, 2021 | Government

Federal and state funds for bushfire recovery have been heavily skewed in favour of state Coalition seats with NSW State Labor picking up just 1% of $177 million handed out. Elizabeth Minter investigates how a fast-tracked fund with no name directed grants to the timber industry, coalition donor Visy and community infrastructure that was not in accordance with project guidelines. 

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, on a huge 64.9% two party preferred vote, and the state electorate of Hawkesbury, held by Liberal MP Robyn Preston.

At least 80% of the Blue Mountains world heritage area and more than 50% of its Gondwana world heritage rainforests were burned. An estimated 2,600 jobs and $560 million in turnover was lost. And according to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, the Blue Mountains economic loss was twice that of Hawkesbury’s – some $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 nothing.

Macquarie MP Susan Templeman said: “While Macquarie suffered terribly, economically, it is disgraceful for the NSW government to play politics with bushfire recovery money in this way.”

This Thursday (January 28) applications close for community grants under the widely advertised $250 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, with funding provided by the federal and state Coalition governments. The process opened on October 27.

What was never advertised was the $177 million stream of bushfire funding. The first the general public and NSW Labor and the Greens knew of this funding by the federal and state Coalition governments was when federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro announced on November 2, 2020, that 71 projects in NSW had been ‘fast-tracked’.

According to the joint media release from Minister Littleproud and John Barilaro, projects fast-tracked were:

“Known priority, community and industry recovery projects such as the 71 projects identified by the NSW Government and agreed to by the Commonwealth Government, following local and industry consultation.”

Just exactly what comprised this local and industry consultation?

Roughly $10 million in grants went to industry, primarily the NSW Farmers Association, the Dairy Research Foundation, the NSW Wine Industry Association and research projects at the University of Sydney. None of these projects could be associated with a specific state electorate according to analysis of the projects by Michael West Media.

As for local consultation? According to Blue Mountains Labor MP Trish Doyle, not a single NSW Labor electorate was asked to put forward projects to be considered for grant funding. She says she wasn’t contacted by anyone asking if her electorate had any vital rebuilding projects despite knowing of more than a handful of ‘shovel-ready projects’ desperate for funding. The first she knew of the $177 million stream of funding was reading about it in the media.

Nor were the Greens contacted about putting forward any potential projects, according to its state MP for Ballina Tamara Smith. The tourist meccas of Ballina and Byron were also hit extremely hard by the bushfires. Smith holds Ballina, which incorporates Byron, with a comfortable 55.4% of the two-party preferred vote. The first Smith knew about the funding was when she read about successful grants in the media.

There was money for the Labor (marginal) seat of Lismore, which Janelle Saffin won from the Nationals in an upset at the 2019 NSW election. Some $2 million went to two timber industry projects in Kyogle. Again, Saffin says she was not contacted regarding putting forward any shovel-ready projects, despite knowing numerous excellent candidates.

Of the $177 million funding, just this $2 million (1.1%) went to state Labor seats; no money went to the Greens.

Meanwhile, manna dropped from heaven for Coalition-held state electorates, with funding even given to projects that didn’t have business plans, despite a condition of the fast-track grants, according to Barilaro, that they be “shovel ready”.

It seems the local consultation took the form of informal discussions, with the NSW Coalition government asking councils and various organisations if they had, for example, any unfunded grant applications. Possibly state Coalition MPs were asked if any groups in their electorates wanted funding for projects.

Take, for example, the $2.7 million fast-tracked grant for a roundabout at Shores Drive in Yamba in the NSW state electorate of Clarence, held by Nationals MP Mr Chris Gulaptis.

The local newspaper, the Clarence Valley Independent, reported that when it asked to see a copy of the council’s bushfire recovery application for the roundabout, the general manager of Clarence Valley Council, Ashley Lindsay, said “There wasn’t one.

“We were asked to provide shovel-ready projects [that] we already had; I guess our application would have been the application we made for the funding for the three roundabouts [in Yamba] on Yamba Rd.”

Mr Lindsay said that when the NSW government asked Clarence Valley Council to nominate a project, “we didn’t know what it was for”.

“We were asked by the state government, do you have any shovel-ready projects that can help with stimulus of the local economy, [and] that was the one we put forward.”

Mr Lindsay told the Independent the $2.7 million grant was “probably” pork barrelling.

Just under $37 million (or 20% of the pot of money) was awarded to the state electorate of Clarence held by the Nationals. At the 2019 state election, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party’s Steve Cansdell recorded a huge 16.8% swing. The Nationals Chris Gulaptis suffered a 3.9% swing against him.

The state electorate of Wagga Wagga was awarded grants totalling more than $43 million (22% of the total funding awarded), including $12.5 million to upgrade the Tumut Aerodrome. This also included two grants of $10 million each to Visy in Tumut.

MP for Wagga Wagga, the Independent Dr Joe McGirr, first won the seat in the 2018 byelection following the resignation of the disgraced Darryl Maguire. In the 2019 NSW election McGirr built on his lead and recorded a massive 28.4% swing to defeat the Nationals.

Fast-tracked projects

Fast-tracking projects meant there was no need for any of the projects to have a business plan. Take the $5.3 million for a 33-kilometre Coastal Trail linking the headlands and beaches of Batemans Bay’s southern shores that was given to Eurobodalla Shire Council, in the state electorate of Bega, held by the Liberals Transport Minister Andrew Constance.

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

In a letter  to a local residents group, the general manager of Eurobodalla Shire Council confirmed a bushfire grant application had not been submitted:

“While Council did not officially submit an application for funding for this project [Batemans Bay Coastal Headland walk] under the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery fund, the Government was aware of this project.”

A May 2019 feasibility study prepared by consultants for the shire council noted that the coastal trail project had no route, no costings, no business plan and no evidence of consultation with the community. The trail was only notionally endorsed by shire councillors one month after the funding announcement.

Without a route, could the trail really be described as “shovel ready”?

On November 27, John Barilaro extended by 12 months the date by which all Bushfire Local Economic Recovery projects had to be completed – from June 2022 to June 2023.

Coalition MPs in the know?

It appears that plenty of Coalition state MPs were in the know about this side stream of $177 million in funding.

Days, even weeks, before the official announcement on November 2, 2020, of the fast-tracked projects, a number of Coalition MPs announced to their electorates that projects had won funding.

Nationals MP Stephen Bromhead

On October 15, 18 days before the official announcement, Nationals MP Stephen Bromhead gave his electorate a heads-up that they would soon be sharing in some of the spoils of the bushfire recovery money, stating in a media release:

“Bushfire impacted businesses and communities in Myall Lakes will soon receive support for local infrastructure and initiatives to drive economic recovery, thanks to the $250 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund, co-funded by the state and federal Governments.”

Bromhead represents Myall Lakes, which covers Taree. Some $8.25 million was awarded in fast-tracked grants project to expand and refurbish Taree’s Saxby Stadium.

Liberals Angus Taylor and Wendy Tuckerman

Ten days before the official announcement, federal Liberal Party minister Angus Taylor and his NSW Liberal state colleague Wendy Tuckerman announced on October 23 that their electorate of Goulburn had won a $2 million grant to extend the walking track alongside the Wollondilly River.

Nationals MP Adam Marshall

Seven days before the official announcement, NSW Nationals MP for Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall told his electorate that two projects had won funding.

  • More than $3.8 million to upgrade recreation and commercial infrastructure at the Dumaresq Dam. The local paper the Armidale Express also reported the grant win that same day – October 26.
  • $5 million for a rebuilding and refurbishment at the Livestock selling centres in Armidale and Guyra.

Nationals MP Melinda Pavey

Six days before the official announcement, NSW Nationals MP Melinda Pavey announced a grant of more than $11 million for a Skydiving Adventure Park in the Macleay Valley in her electorate of Oxley.

Nationals MP Paul Toole

That same day (October 27), Nationals MP Paul Toole, the NSW Lands and Racing Minister, and member for Bathurst announced a $1 million BLER grant for a Farmers Creek project in Lithgow.

Nationals MP Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson, the NSW Minister for Better Regulation and Nationals MP for Tamworth, announced a $1.1 million grant to fund the refurbishment of Walcha’s swimming pool.

A full list of the 71 fast-tracked projects is available here.

Other analysis by Michael West Media shows that some $25 million of the $177 million in fast-tracked grants (14%) went to the NSW timber industry. Manufacturing giant Visy was awarded a $10 million grant for timber projects.

It seems the public, the media and the state and national Audit Offices should be keeping a close eye on how the widely publicised $250 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery funds are doled out.


Editor’s Note: No doubt many of the projects which received money from this funding are valuable community projects. The failure of the program is that the funding was skewed politically, with Labor and Greens state electorates receiving virtually nothing.

This article originally stated that two $10 million grants went to Visy. It has been amended to say that one $10 million grant went to Visy after the government clarified information on its project approval list. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Minter

Elizabeth Minter

A 30-year veteran of the mainstream media, Liz is the editor of Michael West Media and the editor of Pearls and Irritations. Liz began her career in journalism in 1990 and worked at The Age newspaper for two 10-year stints. She also worked at The Guardian newspaper in London for more than seven years. A former professional tennis player who represented Australia in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Liz has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Letters (Hons). Her Twitter handle is @LizMinter_

21 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Pork is no joke.

    It is the fraudulent misappropriation of our money for Party purposes. It would be a crime, except that the perpetrators are those we choose to write the laws.

    • Avatar

      The LNP/BCA/IPA coalition have always seen our public funds as their personal banking system.

      Never been any different only the fact that this has been undertaken by stealth over a number of decades from Malcolm Fraser onwards.

      This current episode has the smell of not only Berejiklian, Perrottet and Barillo, but also the sly hand of Joyce.

  2. Avatar

    That’s not surprising with this LNP Government. But it’s still eye-opening to see the blatant pork-barrelling.

  3. Avatar

    Liberal politicians no longer care to hide their corruption and are now full-belt pork-bellying taxpayers money to their friends and associates and will apparently continue to do it until they get voted out !

  4. Avatar

    I’m beyond disgusted, therefore I will turn to a philosophical viewpoint, which was discussed with a friend of mine today.

    “The world is full of people who think they have the answers to all the questions, and even the answers to some of the questions that have not yet been asked.

    It’s full of people who have plenty of confidence, people who believe, some people who have studied hard and have good reason to trust the information at their disposal, others who simply have a kind of arrogance about them and an assumption that whatever they care to say will somehow prove to be true beyond question. Sometimes it can be very hard to tell the difference from the way that somebody talks, or from the way they carry themselves, or from the attitude that they have or even the number of people who seem willing to accept whatever it is that they have to say.

    We are all, more easily misled than we might imagine, and the reason for that of course is because there are so many questions which none of us know the answer to, which all of us are in the dark with regards to, and they involve many key questions that we have been avoiding for many decades. I know a lot of people get very passionate about their answers, but the fact is nobody actually definitively can prove that the one answer is better than another and that does leave us therefore with this great sense of ‘well if we don’t even know that, what else can we know’ and that of course is exactly why some people are so emphatic, so strong willed, so opinionated, so generally full of their own beliefs, it’s unnvering and it makes you feel insecure, when you have to stop and realise that life is full of so many big imponderables.

    So we cling to what we do know, or what we think we know or what we wish was true, and that somehow comforts us, and it creates a sense of stability in an ocean of doubt but it also means that every so often we will find ourselves suddenly obliged to rethink almost everything that we thought to be a certain way because we suddenly become confronted with a piece of evidence which shows us that we have made an assumption that we can no longer rely on.”

    Two things have proven those points to date, Covid-19 and Climate Change, which has been a known risk for the past 40 years. Go figure. To further highlight the obvious, ‘Autocrats and large numbers of the power crowd hate democracy. They think that things are fine if the stock market goes up. They argue that when it comes to making decisions that government is the problem. The coronavirus pandemic proved that Donald Trump didn’t want to make decisions. https://astrologyforaquarius.com/articles/11333/the-age-of-aquarius-in-2021/.

    To quote a well-known adage from Shakespeare “there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet).

    In 2021 the threat to democracy isn’t from military coups but presidents and prime ministers who erode norms and institutions – checks and balances – leading to a decline in the quality of government. Unscrupulous autocrats are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to do what they always do: grab power at the expense of the people they govern.’

    Note to Morrison et al, you can’t buy your way out of Climate Change.

  5. Avatar

    This makes my stomach absolutely crawl. The corruption by NSW Liberals and federal Liberals is out of control and they cannot stop because they are fully protected by one of the most evil creatures on the planet, Rupert Murdoch. This must be acted upon, somehow. There must be a way to prosecute. Australian National Audit Office. Her Majesty.

    • Avatar

      It’s our political leaders’ absolutely arrogant, brazen, untroubled style that staggers me. They really don’t give a toss if they’re caught. They calculate, correctly, that the electorate has but a passing interest in this blatant corruption.

      • Avatar

        I think it is worse – the public has been fed the assumption that ‘it has always been this way’. Which leads to the conclusion that voters have zero say and ‘all the pollies are the same so why bother changing my vote?’

      • Avatar

        You’re right. They are fed that line, and they willingly swallow it rather than confront the uncomfortable truth.

  6. Avatar

    Seems like we couldn’t do any worse just randomly assigning policies to horses at the GG’s and going with the trifecta.

  7. Avatar

    Scomo and cronies make Joh Bjelke- Peterson look like an honest man and they will become complacent to which the public will see the corruption openly which will be their down fall

  8. Avatar

    Sloppy reporting it would have more honest to start with the seats that were effected and then do the analysis rather just show your political approach

  9. Avatar

    Not surprising given that the federal government is corrupt. The list of blatant corruption is too long for this comment page. However, and regrettably, this administration will no doubt be re-elected by a largely apathetic and numbed electorate. Spin, lies, and complicit media will ensure this outcome. I hope I’m wrong.

    • Avatar

      The public suffers from a lack of media diversity. The education system, public schools and the publicly funded private schools don’t teach the structure of government, why unions are important ( and why union leaders could do with courses in the rights, duties and responsibilities of unions) and how important is civic pride whereas nationalism leads to jingoism and worse. Fewer degrees in finance and more in history and literature would benefit us all.

      • Avatar

        and here we are at the real reason the Arts was targeted for a massive fee hike. University education is being dragged back to the domain of the wealthy. Can’t have the plebs learning they have power.

  10. Avatar

    A crime is a crime regardless of it being a White-Collar-Crime, or a crime against the Crown of Australia, or indeed a crime against the people of Australia. A crime by any other name is will ever be a crime.
    A classic example was the Robodebt scheme, how rancid and rotten it had become… until the day the Federal government had halted their grossly unfair camouflaged sneak-thief endeavor.

    The Robodebt process had proved itself to be unsound due to the lack of, or nil of, supporting documentation to prove a claimed debt.
    Despite that debt reeking of impropriety, all the while the Scomo government claiming the fidelity of the stated debt, which had that debt ultimately shaped-up as wearing a costume… of an outright act of perfidy. (Perfidy = treachery and or deceptive in its purpose.)

    The Federal government may have claimed the Robodebt sceme had received its approval, thereby, that the Robodebt scheme objective had been considered as sound, hence its approval had been mooted; (mooted; not an item or issue open to any dispute.)

  11. Avatar

    When there is a natural disaster the States & or Federal Governments should have to by law work in a bipartisan way to divide emergency funds equally & proportionally. There should never be allocation priorities based on partisan incumbent government!

  12. Avatar

    in NSW the liberals were taught this approach from the Cahill ,Renshaw Carr and even Keneally that is why I suggested start by electorates that were effected and then do an honest analysis

  13. Avatar

    Does anyone have the figures on what percentage of bushfire affected areas are in Coalition seats? This would give more context to the debate as there’s no point arguing about 99% of the money going to coalition seats if 99% of the areas affected were held by the coalition (which I’m sure they weren’t). It seems to be a fact missing from every article I’ve read about this.

  14. Avatar

    But Gladys says pork-barelling has always been done and it is not illegal. Maybe, but the LNP are taking rorts to new egregious levels.
    Unfortunately the LNP are becoming the Republicans down-under. A morally bankrupt, twisted, greedy, unstable bunch who will drive Australia into the dirt.

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