Regional grants program another government rort, according to federal Labor

Labor's Catherine King. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Labor's Catherine King. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Federal Labor has accused the Morrison-Joyce government of a pattern of multimillion-dollar regional rorts, after analysis showing almost 90 per cent of the latest round of the controversial $1.38 billion Building Better Regions Fund going to Coalition-held and marginal seats.

Seat-by-seat analysis, compiled and released by Labor, of the $300 million released on Friday by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce under the fund's round five, found that Coalition seats were awarded $218 million, or 72.7 per cent, of the total funding.

It also points to a grouping of Coalition seats plus marginal seats (Coalition target seats under a 5 per cent margin) receiving 88 per cent of the total funds.

Mr Joyce has defended the regional grants fund as an "open, competitive and merit-based" program, while bristling at suggestions of pork barreling and decrying scrutiny of regional infrastructure funding. But, opposition infrastructure spokeswoman Catherine King says the "numbers don't lie."

"Barnaby Joyce and his ministerial panel clearly prioritised their own seats over worthy projects in other parts of the country," Ms King said on Monday.

"This is just the latest in a long line of rorts from the Morrison-Joyce government."

"Sports rorts, car park rorts, safer communities rorts and now another round of regional rorts."

The Australian National Audit Office is currently auditing the Building Better Regions Fund and is due to report mid next year. Documents released under freedom-of-information laws earlier this year showed that a panel of ministers had intervened and rejected departmental advice in around a third of the decisions.

Labor says the latest round fits the pattern of previous rounds. It concedes the Coalition holds more regional seats, but of the seats eligible for regional funding Labor says it holds around 34 per cent of them, but those seats only received 16 per cent of the funding.

The Deputy Prime Minister denies accusations of rorting, pointing to regional Australia, geographically, being overwhelmingly represented by Coalition MPs.

"The Liberal and Nationals government is delivering for regional Australia and that's what we'll continue to do," Mr Joyce said in a statement.

"All selected projects were assessed against publicly available guidelines as eligible and providing value for money."

He also took umbrage at a press conference earlier in the day, when asked about the practice of regional rorting or pork barrelling as he announced new local facilities and stood with a Nationals candidate.

"Is it pork barrelling? It drives me insane. Every time Sydney gets something, apparently it's a great decision," Mr Joyce said during a stop at Maneela Park.

"Something magical happens - you cross over the Hawkesbury and it's pork barrelling. It's pork barrelling. And so I don't care what they call it we're going to drive to make sure that people, whether in Lake Macquarie, whether in Muswellbrook, Singleton, Tamworth, Wellington, if they go out to Dubbo - and they can call it what they like. I don't care what they want to do to me or other people in the Nationals. We're going to make sure we drive so we get some services out here."

On Friday, Mr Joyce committed an extra $100 million to the now $300 million round as part of an infrastructure boost for COVID-19 hit regions.

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There were 298 projects listed including art galleries, museums, sporting precincts, aquatic centres, health facilities, community halls and upgrades to regional water supplies.

Labor has previously described the fund as "rorting on an industrial scale. Ms King says the decisions appear political.

"Communities across Australia have projects that are worthy of funding, but Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison can only see those in Coalition seats," she said.

"The only thing this government cares about is diverting funds for their own electoral purposes, they couldn't care less about building a better Australia or developing all regions."

To date, the Morrison government has invested $1.38 billion across five rounds of the program and funded nearly 1300 projects.

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This story Labor sees 'rort' pattern in regional grants program first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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