Senate debates

Monday, 18 October 2021


Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Improved Grants Reporting) Bill 2021; Second Reading

11:19 am

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | Hansard source

Mr President, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your election to the role of President this morning. The very existence of this bill, the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Amendment (Improved Grants Reporting) Bill 2021, the fact that I'm up here needing to debate an antirorting bill from opposition, highlights the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in today. Day after day, month after month, over the past eight long years that the Liberals and Nationals have been in government, Australians have opened the newspapers or turned on the TV news only to learn about a new spending scandal ensnaring this government—sports rorts, the Building Better Regions rort, the pork-and-ride commuter car park scheme. And they're only the most recent and some of the most egregious examples.

Two weeks ago, on 2 October, I opened the Daily Telegraph to find one of the most galling examples of just how shameless this government has become with its rorts. In an article about the continuing saga of the National Party considering whether they'll agree to a net zero climate policy, an unnamed government MP told the Daily Telegraph that policy packages are going to be 'less important than the compensation package offered to regional Australia'. The quoted MP joked:

There's going to be a giant National Party green rainbow across regional Australia with crocs full of pork at the bottom …

That's where we're at after eight long years of this government. We have a government MP joking with a journalist about the flagrant misuse of taxpayer dollars to buy off members of this government—senior members, in fact, like the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Joyce. What this quote says to me and the rest of Australia, and the Australian public, for that matter, is that the rorts have reached a crisis point. The government are at the point where they don't even care about being caught anymore and they're actually joking in broad daylight about what is to come in the lead-up to the next election.

To be honest, this sort of behaviour is so blatant, it's so brazen, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this sort of spending, this bankrolling of anyone or any seat that's a bit politically difficult, is a natural part of any government's activity. They do it so casually, in the hope that Australians also think that this approach to budgeting is a perfectly legitimate strategy. Australians work hard for their money and they should be able to have faith that those who find themselves in positions of power, making decisions about how Australian taxpayer dollars are spent, are doing so with the utmost honesty and integrity—which is exactly why we in Labor have been left with no choice but to introduce this bill for debate.

It's clear that the current Commonwealth Grant Rules and Guidelines are part of the problem when it comes to a lack of transparency around government spending. At the moment, a minister who approves grants against the recommendation of their department or within their own electorate can have a free pass of up to16 months before their decisions are public. In some cases—and, indeed, in the case of the pork-barrelling that has been foreshadowed by government MPs in a newspaper—that will be well after the next federal election. That's what the Prime Minister and his ministers hope will remain the case. In a government that is already marred by a 'don't ask, don't tell' culture, this sort of lag time has undoubtedly helped the Prime Minister and others avoid accountability on dodgy spending decisions.

Labor believes that taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent in as close as possible to real time, not 16 months down the track. That's why this bill will force ministers who award grants in their own electorate, or against departmental recommendations, to report the decision to the finance minister within just 30 days of the approval, and then the finance minister has to table that report in the parliament within five sitting days. This will dramatically reduce the time ministers are able to hide their dodgy decisions from the Australian community, and there is no reasonable argument for any senator in this place, particularly those on the government benches, to oppose this bill. The fact that we are even introducing this bill, though, is a sad indictment of the current state of affairs under Scott Morrison and the coalition. But rorting and pork-barrelling are just business as usual for this lot, as they have been for some time.

Since 2014, this government has created more than 150 funds or grants programs in the budget, totalling almost $70 billion in public money. Now, let's be clear. Some of these funds are legitimate, and we accept that. But what we don't accept is the pattern of behaviour that has become standard practice for the Morrison government. That behaviour is to hide money away in these funds for a rainy day and only open them up to coalition held or target seats, sometimes on the eve of an election, and, most importantly, to do so in a way that keeps it secret for as long as possible. Make no mistake; this pattern started when Mr Morrison, our current Prime Minister, was Treasurer. He learnt very early that it's a pretty neat way to campaign without ever having to touch your own Liberal Party campaign funds.

In the lead-up to the last election, we saw 91 per cent of the $30 million in round 3 of the Safer Communities Fund go to government, Independent or marginal Labor seats, with the government rejecting projects picked by experts and instead choosing to funnel the money into their own hand-picked projects. We saw a $150 million fund dedicated to building female change rooms appropriated for swimming pools in 11 Liberal and Nationals held seats. We even saw a Liberal seat holder announce $400,000 worth of Communities Environment Program funding before the program was even opened. Fancy that. These aren't even the most egregious of the examples. Who could forget sports rorts, where $100 million in funding was flung out the door, not based on the advice of Sports Australia but based on a colour-coded spreadsheet that passed between the Prime Minister's office and Senator McKenzie's office on the eve of the election, indeed, with final decisions being made after caretaker commenced? Or the latest one, the 'pork 'n' ride' commuter car park rort, which puts sports rorts to shame, really—a $660 million fund for commuter car parks with a view to reduce congestion in urban areas and ensure commuters get home sooner.

Who could forget the Treasurer of Australia on budget night announcing this fund to the Australian people in his budget speech? He said, 'We're going to have a commuter car park fund to beat congestion.' He didn't say: 'We're only going to canvass government members to be able to apply for this fund. We'll use your money and announce this fund and make it look like it's going to be open to everybody, but then we're going to have a secret process where only coalition members can be invited and canvassed'—I think that was the word—'for what we'd like and where we'd like it.' Lo and behold, the Treasurer of Australia gets four in his electorate. He announces the fund on budget night, pretends that it's open to anywhere with urban congestion issues, and then on the eve of the election, again, before any transparency or accountability, he signs off on four in his own electorate. That's what happened here.

The Treasurer of Australia is the apprentice of the Prime Minister when it comes to rorting funds. It starts at the top. This Prime Minister rewards ministers who take public funds, put a dodgy process around them and then allocate the Australian people's money into seats they want to either hold or win, or for a political fix with the National Party. That's the other option. That's how this government works. There will be no lecturing about fiscal responsibility from the government that has wasted more money than any other government since Federation. There will be no lectures on fiscal responsibility, because this is the behaviour they have engaged in year after year for eight long years. The Australian people are paying the price for it. The bill has to get paid. Once the pork-barrelling and the rorts are over and the government's kicked out, the bill will still be there. This is why we are introducing this bill today.

When government members are questioned about the appropriateness or otherwise of their spending, they fob it off and say: 'Oh well, we hold seats in those areas, that's why we're funnelling 90 per cent of the funding into those areas. We're sorry that there's only 10 per cent for the rest of you. That's where we hold a seat, and that's where we want to maintain our seat.' They don't even pretend. The Deputy Prime Minister was quoted as saying, 'Oh well, I don't care,' when asked about pork-barrelling in the regions.

Look at the Building Better Regions Fund rort. That has been a really special one for this government. It was one of the earlier performers in funnelling money into coalition seats. It started as a relatively modest program in the rorting schemes that we've seen established. It started out as a $300 million fund in 2016. It's been so successful at funnelling money into particular electorates without any accountability that it's been topped up several times, and the fund has now grown to a whopping $1.38 billion. The Deputy Prime Minister announced a couple of weeks ago that $100 million would be going into round 5 of the program, bringing the total round 5 funding to $300 million. Then, in the same breath—what a coincidence!—he said nearly 90 per cent of this funding, $270 million out of $300 million, went to coalition held or target seats.

So this shows that, even after sports rorts, even after the female change rooms rort, even after the commuter car park rorts and even after the Auditor-General has handed down scathing report after scathing report—and it still has reports into the Urban Congestion Fund going on—this government doesn't care, because it hasn't changed anything about the way it allocates money through these schemes.

We know that 112 out of 330 projects in round 3 of the Building Better Regions Fund and 49 of the 163 projects in round 4 were approved against departmental recommendation. When the government was forced, under a Senate order, to table the information about those decisions—it is inadequate; it takes months—and we had this at estimates, all of the detail in all of the attachments was blacked out under some confidentiality principle. So we have this situation where we have all of the details but nobody's allowed to see them. A straight black sheet of paper was released when trying to bring this government to some transparency. That's the approach.

This is an issue that we take really seriously. I would note that the usual defence is, 'You all do it too.' The finance minister used the argument on national TV: 'We took it to the people, the people voted us in and, therefore, we can do what we like.' The problem with that argument is that, when they announced the Building Better Regions Fund, the sports community grants program, the sporting infrastructure program, the swimming facility improvement program and the Building Better Regions Fund, they didn't say, 'We're going to have a dodgy process around them and funnel all this money into seats that we want to hold.' When that money is appropriated through the appropriation bill, the Australian people are right to believe that that money is there for all of them, because that's how this money's made available. It's made available through an appropriation bill based on the government saying, 'We are establishing this program.' But then there's this fine line and this small print when you get down into the detail which is never published when these funds are appropriated that says, 'By the way, 90 per cent of this billions of dollars is going to be allocated to our election priorities and is going to favour the seats we want to win.' That is not said to people before the election. I think if the government were honest and took that approach, saying, 'We're going to establish funds and then we're going to allow only our people to apply for them,' there might very well be a different election result. So it's dishonest to use that as a defence for the way these programs are managed.

This government has wasted more money than any government since Federation. Through JobKeeper, $20 billion was provided to companies whose profits increased and who didn't meet the turnover threshold test. That's the legacy of this government. So we want no more lectures on fiscal responsibility as they're pork-barrelling their way around the country. People should support this bill. (Time expired)


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