Saturday, January 20, 2018

Government grants sloppy, and perhaps corrupt

Before the last election the Turnbull government had an unofficial budget: $20 million for each electorate in play. It could be handed out as picnic tables, fire trails, skate parks, netball courts, disabled toilets, or anything else that made it look as if the government cared about the electorate.

A senior source told me it was clever – Turnbull had managed to cap the financial cost. Labor said little. It couldn't. In office it had done it itself.

That these sort of grants weren't what the Commonwealth was for, as was tacitly acknowledged as Treasurer Scott Morrison tried to keep a straight face in a press conference days before the vote.

Journalist Phillip Coorey had asked him why the Commonwealth was funding dunny blocks.

"People need them Phil, people need them," the Treasurer replied. Addressing community cohesion was important.

But not important enough to have an independent panel access applications and award grants on the basis of need. If that had happened it is highly unlikely that 20 per cent of the funds would have gone to electorates representing just 2 per cent of the population.

Labor used to have such a panel, although it didn't always follow its recommendations. In 2014 the Audit Office recommended that the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development do the job. The government "agreed" with the recommendation, although it merely "noted" another that said applications should have to meet published merit assessment criteria.

In an almost ideal world we would have an independent body deciding on grants, in the same way as the independent Reserve Bank decides on interest rates, and for the same reason – the government can't be trusted. In an absolutely ideal world the Commonwealth wouldn't hand them out at all.

At a minimum we should have a Commonwealth anti-corruption commission. And we ought to outlaw bigger grants that are just as sloppy, allocated without tender.

In the budget the government awarded Fox Sports $30 million to "increase coverage of sports that receive low or no broadcast exposure". The criteria are so broad it'll meet them easily. The documentation released this month says it's a direct offer, "available only to Fox Sports Australia Pty Ltd".

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald