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

Illustration of zombie pigs
Coalition "zombie" grants 2013, 2016 and 2019 elections (Illustration by Alex Anstey)

Coalition pork-barrelling during the 2013 and 2016 election campaigns involved “zombie” grants that had not a hope in Hades of getting off the ground. Yet those grant applications are still on the books just waiting to be revived. How many grants from the 2019 election await a similar fate? Jommy Tee investigates.

Michael West Media had already established that the Community Development Grants (CDG) program is pure and simple a Coalition slush fund, but this was confirmed by departmental officials at a recent Senate estimates hearing on June 9.

Slush: how the Coalition ramped up grants rorts while freezes and funding cuts hit Australia’s needy

Moreover, up to eight years after a number of grants were announced as part of the Coalition’s election pork-barrelling, a sod is yet to be turned because the land hasn’t even been acquired.

At the Senate hearing, department officials revealed that 23 grants are still on the program’s books just waiting to be resurrected at will.

These grants were announced in the lead-up to the 2013 and 2016 elections but in most cases were not even close to being shovel ready and were possibly unviable. With some of the grants, the land hadn’t been bought.

“Zombie” grants in limbo

Under questioning from Greens senator Janet Rice, infrastructure and regional departmental officials revealed that 23 grants announced as part of the Abbott and Turnbull election commitments are in a state of limbo waiting for their grants to be resurrected because “we’re still waiting for project information”.

We have called these grants *zombie grants* for obvious reasons.

Michael West Media is unaware of any other grant program where a grant application can lie dormant for more than eight years and, at the drop of a hat, be resurrected at will.

It is also highly likely that more zombie grants are on the way, because officials were also asked about the 205 election commitments made during the 2019 election.

The tale of these applications is: seven commitments have been awarded funding and have been completed; another 34 have contracts and are yet to completed; and 82 grant commitments are being assessed.

That leaves a further 82 potential zombie grants from the 2019 election — where applicants have yet to supply the required information to progress to the assessment stage.

Under this CDG program, after the Government has announced the grant, there is no time limit for when the grant needs to be zapped into life. Grants can be on the books for years before the lucky applicant decides they are ready to go.

Zombie Grants from Jommy Tee on Vimeo.

The CDG was conceived in 2013, had its funding massively increased when Scott Morrison was treasurer, with the grants heavily favouring projects in Coalition-held seats. The $2.5 billion-plus political rort was quietly extended last year to 2025-26, enabling the rorting to continue for at least another two elections.

The Rigs are Getting Bigger: Michael Pascoe on Community Development Grants rorts

Program an election promise pipeline

At the June Senate estimates hearing, departmental officials conceded that the CDG was nothing more than an election promise pipeline.

The program was:

“designed largely to deliver government election commitments and other specified government commitments. Over 90 per cent of the projects that are being delivered through the CDG Program are either election commitments or decisions that were announced in the 2019 budget”.

The officials went on to say:

“It’s explicitly designed as a non-competitive grants program and, because it is largely designed to cater for election commitments … the process actually starts with a government announcement of a commitment to a project.”

Governing grants via media release

The extent of the Government control of the program was also clear when officials revealed that, at times, the first they heard of projects was via a government media release.

“For this particular grants program, it does commence with an announcement of the Government commitment, generally, to a particular project.”

After the Government announced funding for a project, officials then contacted the “applicant”, asking them to complete an application form to start the “process”.

When asked whether the department itself ever nominated any projects for funding the response was clear: “Under this program, the projects are identified by government.”

100% success rate

Moreover, the “success” rate of “applicants” assessed was a miraculous 100%. Regarding the 2019 cohort of election commitment applicants, unsurprisingly, every assessment undertaken by the department met the criteria.

Regarding the 23 zombie grants still on the books, three hark back to the 2013 election with the remaining 20 announced in the lead-up to the 2016 election. The three from the 2013 election have “not been able to get land — that’s the main reason” for the delay.

In short, the Government committed funding as part of election campaign to projects that were unlikely to ever be realised. Or if the project proponent’s luck changed, a decade later, they could still access a grant.

The department previously tabled advice that, as at January 31 2020, a total of 728 active projects worth approximately $1.5 billion were on the books of the Community Development Grants program — a true schlock-fest of political pork barrelling.


Future Rorts: Why buy one election when you can buy three?

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