The coalition government’s $800 million manufacturing grants program will be used as a slush fund in the run up to the next election, Labor has warned, after it was revealed the Prime Minister will have final say on where the money goes.
The Opposition is raising the alarm about the grants program – the collaboration stream of the government’s flagship $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative – because the guidelines published last month show Scott Morrison will have final approval on which manufacturers receive individual grants up to $200 million for large scale projects.
Under the guidelines, Industry Innovation and Science Australia will review applications and advise the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, currently Christian Porter, who will recommend projects to the Prime Minister for a final decision.
Applications open next month and close in September, with assessments expected to take up to 19 weeks, which would see announcements made in the lead up to the next federal election, widely expected to be held early next year.
“This grant is clearly being structured in such a way as to streamline pork-barrelling and proactively stymie scrutiny by attempting to normalise the same process that was so heavily criticised during sports rorts,” Shadow Minister for government accountability Kristina Keneally said.
“What this grant represents is the formal baking-in of the infamous colour-coded spreadsheets – a complete subversion of the Westminster system of ‘ministerial accountability’ and the creation of a new normal where Mr Morrison decides who gets what based solely on his political ambitions.”
Labor has sought assurances from the government the manufacturing grants will be awarded based on merit and follow the Department’s advice.
The concern follows several partisan spending scandals involving the Prime Minister’s Office, the latest being about the $660m commuter car park fund which the National Audit Office found was administered based on the advice of MPs and election candidates rather than merit.
On Wednesday, Ms Keneally used a speech to Deakin University’s accountability and rule of law workshop to single out the manufacturing program as one of 22 government “slush funds” worth “billions of dollars” to be spent at the discretion of the Minister.
She said the coalition is normalising the “rorting” of public funds because Mr Morrison believes “it is a sure-fire way to get re-elected” even though it damages the rule of law in the process.
“Mr Morrison will continue to treat taxpayer money like it is Liberal Party money because his only goal is re-election. He does not care what damage he does along the way – which communities miss out on much needed support or infrastructure – as long as he gets to stay in The Lodge,” Ms Keneally said.
“As I said – they break the rules they don’t care about, and they change the rules they can.”
Labor’s solution is to “replace the carrot with a stick” and establish a Federal Anti-Corruption Commission, which Ms Keneally promised would be much more robust than the “toothless” version the Coalition has proposed but is yet to establish.
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