Government Grants Bill
Second Reading Speech
Mr ROY BUTLER (Barwon) (15:10): I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I am pleased to introduce the Government Sector Finance Amendment (Government Grants) Bill 2021. I introduce this bill today not for my own self-interest, not for the interest of my party and not for the interest of any lobbyist or peak body: I introduce this bill for the people of New South Wales, people who day in and day out show up to work, work hard and pay their taxes. It is their taxes that this Government, and any government, distributes through government grants programs. When a Government awards a grant it is using public money, the money from the people of New South Wales. It is not the Government's money. It is not a slush fund to be used to buy favour in a community to be granted for the political benefit of one party to buy votes, or, as the former Premier said in ICAC, "curry favour with the electorate".
While this behaviour and practice is not illegal, it is mucky. It shows contempt for the people of New South Wales and it may be found by ICAC to be corrupt. Time will tell. I have heard members opposite fume at me after the delivery of the State Budget. I will not use the language that they used, but it was to the effect of, "Damn safe seat. I get nothing again." I have had people in my own electorate say to me, "We are not a safe seat anymore. It means we'll finally get things funded." These are essential things like roads, bubblers at schools, new play equipment on school sites, buses for disabled students to get to school, mental health councillors, and the list goes on. Over the past year honest, hardworking, taxpaying people right across New South Wales have sat back and watched in disbelief as we have heard explosive evidence about document shredding in the Premier's office, blatant pork-barrelling during by-elections, and multiple stories about tens of millions of dollars from regional funds going to Sydney suburbs.
There was an instance in my own electorate where a worthy recipient in Narrabri deemed eligible for grant money was bumped so money could go to Sydney. There was a cool $90 million given to one council in Sydney in a matter of days, without any application form from the council—just after a few phone calls and emails. These accounts are utterly offensive to people in my electorate. On the topic of pork-barrelling, this Government has attempted to make the public believe that the pork-barrelling of funds into an electorate makes the member of Parliament representing that area a good local member. We saw that defence presented yesterday in the other place by a member of Government when blatant pork-barrelling was discussed.
Members of Government spend their time flitting around regional New South Wales announcing grants, making it seem like this Government is the saviour of the people. The motivation for this behaviour is clear: It is aimed at suppressing political competition, excluding non-government elected representatives and, far worse, at times threatening the recipient group. Non-disclosure agreements are forced upon groups by the Government with the threat, "If you want the grant you can't talk to your non-government local representative." This is the behaviour of a dictatorship. It has no place in Australia and it is well within the realm of ICAC's investigative instructions. This behaviour is increasing, the independence of agency staff is in question and the public's opinion of Government has never been lower.
This bill removes the motive for the misuse of public money to suppress political competition and allows community groups the confidence to engage with the local elected representative, and not the faux representatives forced onto them. What you never see discussed in the highly staged Government announcements is the effort of the local footy club, Country Women's Association, Campdraft Association, or band of community‑minded individuals who have put in a huge amount of work to extract a small amount of funding from this Government. There is one fund that is used by members of Government—particularly the junior party in the Coalition—to say they are not pork-barrelling funds, that is the $400,000 per electorate Community Building Partnership program. While the Community Building Partnership program is a fantastic program that has seen many worthy projects funded in my electorate, saying we do not pork-barrel because of one fund is hardly a substantial body of evidence compared to what the Public Accounts Committee found in its inquiry into the integrity, efficacy and value for money of New South Wales Government grant programs—a 200-page dissection of all that is wrong with the grants process in this State. That inquiry found clear abuses of the grants processes, improper allocations of public money and scenarios that fell well short of the principles of proper grants administration and public expectations. As the report states:
Government grant programs should always be designed and administered according to principles of transparency and accountability and to benefit the public interest. While these principles are important in any government process, they are particularly important when public money is being spent. The public has a reasonable expectation that grant programs will be designed and administered fairly and appropriately. This is important for public confidence in government and its processes. The principles of transparency and accountability are particularly important in the design and administration of grant programs, which can blur the lines between government administration and politics.
The bill is by no means a silver bullet for all the things that are wrong with the administration of government grants in New South Wales. The bill takes the first step down the path to putting rigour and controls in the Government's various grant processes. It is simple in nature. It will amend the Government Sector Finance Act 2018 to provide for informing the relevant member of Parliament, that being the member of the Legislative Assembly for the electorate that the grant applicant is from. That is the elected representative and not some Government member from miles away—a government grants glitter fairy. The bill does that by inserting new section 10.6, which notifies relevant members of Parliament of decisions about government grants. New section 10.6 (3) states:
The entity responsible for deciding the application must give oral or written notice to the relevant member of Parliament of the following information, as soon as practicable after the entity becomes aware of each matter—
(a)when the entity received the application,
(b)the time frame for deciding the application,
(c)a decision about whether to pay the grant to the applicant,
(d)if a decision is made to pay the grant to the applicant—
(i)the amount to be paid, and
(ii)when and where the decision will be announced.
The amendment includes the capacity to exclude the local member from the future provision of this information if the person discloses unreleased information without the consent of the grant decision‑maker. It does not preclude the Government from announcing grants; however, it does provide for the inclusion of the elected representatives in that process. In the past week we have heard the Premier say he wants to improve transparency in Government grants programs. Supporting this bill would be a move in the right direction and would signal strongly to the people of regional New South Wales that he is going to stop the pork‑barrelling we have seen from the Liberals and The Nationals in government. I urge every member to support the bill, which I commend to the House.