Labor on Monday put forward a bill which would require ministers to report within a month when they approve grants rejected by their departments or when they award grants in their own electorates, after a string of rorting scandals.
The Opposition said the new law would curb the use of public money for political means, claiming that rorting worsened when Scott Morrison became Treasurer and has reached a “crisis point” under his leadership.
Greens Senators backed the proposal but government Senators did not, claiming it would create inconsistencies, inaccuracies and duplication in grant reporting.
The push for more transparency in federal spending follows a series of scandals involving the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars of public money through several federal grant programs.
Investigations have shown that the money from these programs has been directed to Coalition held, marginal or targeted electorates, often contrary to Department advice.
Earlier this month, an unnamed government MP was quoted as saying the government’s next climate change plan could be secured with its junior party with an agreement to provide compensation to their electorates through pork barrelling.
“There’s going to be a giant National Party green rainbow across regional Australia with crocs full of pork at the bottom,” the government MP told the Daily Telegraph.
On Monday, shadow finance minister Katy Gallagher told the Senate that the Coalition government’s attitude showed rorts have reached a “crisis point”.
“They do it so casually in the hope that Australians will think that this approach to budgeting is a perfectly legitimate strategy,” Senator Gallagher said during debate of the bill.
“Well, 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.”
Currently, Commonwealth grant rules and guidelines require ministers to receive departmental advice on any proposed grant but they do not necessarily have to follow it.
If officials recommend a grant not be awarded, ministers can still overrule the advice but must report it to the finance minister as part of annual reporting. They must also report when they award a grant in their own electorate “as soon as practicable”.
Labor is concerned that the current lag time in reporting – well over a year in some cases – is being exploited by the Coalition government to award grants without scrutiny for political purposes.
“At the moment, a minister who approves grants against the recommendation of the department or within their own electorate, can have up to 16 months free pass before their decisions are made public,” Senator Gallagher said.
“In some cases…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.”
Senator Gallagher said Labor had “no choice” but to introduce the bill, which would amend the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability to make it a legal requirement for much faster reporting.
Scott Morrison is running the most wasteful government since federation with both eyes focused on buying votes to win seats.
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) October 18, 2021
The amendment would require ministers approving grants against departmental recommendation, within their own electorates, or grants that did not meet any of the relevant selection criteria to provide reports to the Finance Minister within 30 days of their approval.
The finance minister would then need to table those reports in the Parliament within five sitting days of receiving them.
“Labor believes that taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent in as close as possible to real time, not 16 months down the track,” Senator Gallagher said during the bill’s second reading debate.
In response, government Senator Claire Chandler said the proposal had “some reasonable intentions” about ensuring government expenditure transparency but would duplicate existing reporting requirements and could create inconsistencies in them.
“This bill evidently has some reasonable intentions around transparency but it is not taking into account the processes this government has already put in place to ensure transparent reporting of government,” Senator Chandler said.
Senator Chandler said requiring earlier reporting of grant approvals, potentially before they are signed with grantees, could create inaccuracies because agreements are sometimes negotiated and altered after approval.
She pointed to existing reporting requirements about ministers’ decisions and the online grant portal which shows grants after they have been finalised and signed with the grantee as evidence of current transparency.
Senator Chandler added that requiring ministers to report grants they award within their electorate within 30 days rather than the current “as soon as practicable” requirement would lead to a “lowering of standards”.
“The current obligation is focused on drawing forward the obligation to the earliest possible point. That’s why it says, ‘as soon as practicable’,” Senator Chandler told the Senate.
“Because this bill would redefine what is a reportable grant in primary law, it could override it and therefore push that recording timeline back to the 30 days.”
Greens Senator Larissa Waters said it would be difficult to list the Coalition government’s recent rorts in her allotted speaking time.
“Is there any buckets of public money that this government won’t use for its own electoral gain? There are so many examples of grants being awarded contrary to selection criteria or merit,” Senator Waters said.
“And as you head into the election I have no doubt that we will see more from this government.”
The Greens last year successfully moved for an order of continuing effect to make ministers’ grant decisions public.
“This [reporting] bill builds on that, and we support it,” Senator Waters said.
“But it’s not enough just to stop the riots, we need a strong federal corruption watchdog. We’ve been waiting 1000 days for this government to get on with the job [of establishing an anti-corruption commission].”
Senator Waters said the bill she introduced two years ago to establish an anti-corruption body passed the Senate at the time but had been “languishing” in the House of Representatives since then.
“I’ll be moving again this week to force the government to bring that on in the House. The Australian public are fed up with the rorting, they’re fed up with the corruption, and they deserve better,” she said.
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