The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has conceded that $140m in grants to councils that were approved in the nine months before the last state election amounted to pork barrelling, but said there was nothing illegal about it.
“It’s not something the community likes ... but it’s an accusation I will wear,” she said. It’s not unique to our government,” Berejiklian said.
“It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately it does happen from time to time by every government,” she said.
Labor and the Greens seized on documents forensically recovered from databases, which they claim show Berejiklian was directly involved in the approval process. Berejiklian denies she was involved in the approval.
“I was consulted and I was provided advice, so were other ministers. But the Office of Local Government was responsible for getting the dollars to councils,” Berejiklian said.
The grants from the $252m Stronger Communities fund went overwhelmingly to Coalition-held seats and the documents show only Coalition MPs were consulted.
One undated, unsigned memo prepared by staffer Sarah Lau for the premier, recovered by computer experts, lists seven projects, all in Coalition seats. They were recommended by Coalition MPs.
“The PLO [parliamentary liaison officer] team has consulted with local members and has pulled together the list of open space projects in Table 1 for your approval,” the memo says.
It includes a place at the end for Berejiklian to sign and add any comments.
Her signature is not on this recovered version but it will raise further questions about the process used to allocate $252m in taxpayer funds. Paper copies of the document were shredded.
Berejiklian said the department of local government had assessed and decided who would receive funding.
Asked about the use of the word “approved” in the memo, the premier said: “What language people use is for them.” But she seemed to acknowledge that the scheme had been used to pork-barrel in Coalition seats.
She said the notes were working advice notes, and her office had now sought advice from the archives office about whether they needed to be preserved.
Berejiklian said the changes to the guidelines had gone through all appropriate processes including the expenditure review committee.
Berejiklian previously told the media she did not sign off on the grants and denied that the scheme was used as a political slush fund to bolster Coalition MPs’ chances of re-election.
She has continued to deny she approved the projects despite the new documents.
This is the Premier saying pork barrelling is fine, that it is common in her Government.
It isn't OK. It's never OK. It shouldn't be common in her Government or anyone else's. #nswpol pic.twitter.com/f4ccCzCdLS
— Jodi McKay (@JodiMcKayMP) November 26, 2020
More than $250m was earmarked to assist councils with the cost of merging, but when the unpopular policy was abandoned in 2017, the funds were repurposed into the Stronger Communities scheme.
Many Labor councils were unaware of the fund and how to apply and there appear to have been no published guidelines.
When the upper house minor parties and Labor demanded the government produce the paperwork on the scheme, they were given just a handful of emails listing successful projects.
Senior staff to Berejiklian told a parliamentary inquiry they had shredded working documents and documents noting who had approved the spending and why.
“At last we finally see the truth,” Greens MP David Shoebridge said. “Throughout this year, the premier has been ducking and weaving.”
He said the memo showed she was at the heart of the grants process.
Labor’s John Graham said it was now clear why the documents had been shredded, but there were still critical questions about the process.
The grants scheme has been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the auditor general of NSW and the information commissioner over the lack of process and record keeping.
Shoebridge accused the government of running “a backwards” process, whereby guidelines were shaped to allow funding for projects that had already been chosen. He said this was in direct contravention of the Icac guidelines on grants, which say governments should produce transparent guidelines before calling for applications.
The recovered memo, after listing the projects, advises the premier: “To enable this funding to go out you will need to approve two updated funding guidelines.”
Another memo shows the government, after abandoning its policy of merging councils, agreed to change the guidelines so that councils that had not merged could also be given grants.
One council, Hornsby, in a seat held by the environment minister, Matt Kean, received $90m, even though it did not merge. The new documents were put to the premier for approval.
A newly recovered memo shows Hornsby council was seeking $279m and the general manager had met the premier’s staff and Kean.
The memo, addressed to the premier, says there is no obvious other source of funds for the projects other than the $160m set aside from the merger funds.
“This package would be larger than our entire open spaces package, and we would be spending more on delivering sports fields and facilities in Hornsby than we are planning for the rest of Sydney over the next four years,” the memo says.
The memo then includes a place for the premier to sign.
The saga has outraged councils that missed out because they were unaware of the fund.
Inner West council has asked the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet for an independent forensic review of the department’s records.