The Western Australian Liberal-National Government has allocated more than half of a $94.5 million local government fund to just five WA National Party electorates, an investigation has uncovered.

The five will receive $55.9 million next year from the fund, which is part of the Royalties for Regions (RFR) scheme. The remaining 12 non-National Party electorates in rural WA will get $38.6 million, according to the 2010-11 local government allocations on the RFR website.

The Country Local Government Fund (CLGF) is one of four funds in the RFR scheme and it will distribute $94.5 million between nine regions next year, based on the number of local governments in each region. The boundaries of the nine regions, 17 electorates and 110 rural, regional and remote local governments are not aligned, complicating analysis of the spending distribution.

The regional development minister and parliamentary leader for the WA Nationals, Brendon Grylls, has been criticised by the state opposition for using a formula that neglects areas of most need. The formula separately allocates a minimum of $400,000 to 110 local governments with a $900,000 cap.

Grylls is the member for Central Wheatbelt and has allocated $29.1 million — nearly a third of the fund — to the Wheatbelt region populated with 43 local governments. The Pilbara region is covered by a Labor Party seat and will get $6.6 million next year because it has four local governments.

Comparing the current funding allocations with the 2010 population data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows people in the Wheatbelt region will receive the equivalent of $388.52 per person while people in the Pilbara region will be getting $136.76 per person.

Before Grylls implemented his own spending formula, he rejected a formula based upon need and the cost of service submitted by the Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA). Grylls declined to expose how the CLGF formula was made and decided when asked by the State Opposition to explain it.

Former opposition infrastructure spokesperson Alannah MacTeirnan’s request under the Freedom of Information Act 1992 (FOI) was denied, on the grounds that the documents relating to the CLGF were either lost or did not exist.

In parliament, Grylls was asked how the complex formula was produced without documents in his office or department. He said it was part of the cabinet submission which is why it was not provided in response to the FOI application.

The 3rd Degree blog site questioned WALGA CEO Ricky Burges about the recent CLGF rorting allegations and the need for a new formula. Burges, who is in the Local Government Reform Steering Committee, evaded the questions. President of WALGA Troy Pickard was not available for comment.

Shadow minister for local government Paul Papalia said WALGA is doing the local government sector a disservice by not being critical of the government. WALGA is an independent organisation that lobbies and negotiates with the government on behalf of WA’s 141 local governments and it publicly supports the spending method adopted by Grylls.

Papalia questioned how heartfelt that support is, saying: “The way the government overcomes some of their potentially biggest critics is to place them on committees so they become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It restricts their ability to criticise. Not just Ricky Burges, but a number of other WALGA representatives have been placed on a range of committees by the minister for local government.”

Papalia says the formula was created to unfairly distribute the majority of the royalties to WA National Party electorates. Local government minister John Castrilli did not get back to 3rd Degree by deadline.

The RFR scheme is financed by using 25% of WA’s mining royalties each year. According to the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA, during 2008 the Pilbara region generated 78.5% of WA’s mining royalties while the Wheatbelt region produced 1.5%. The Pilbara region will receive 6.8% of the CLGF next year.

Member for the Pilbara Tom Stephens said that if the WA National Party’s approach to the CLGF was ever detected at a national level, it would be the basis for bringing down ministers through royal commissions and public inquiries.

“The [WA] National Party are desperate for survival and they’re utilising the Royalties for Regions scheme to sure up their own political base in the wheatbelt area, in the hope, that the wheatbelt communities will continue to re-elect their three [WA] National MPs,” Stephens said. “It’s chronically bad politics … [the CLGF] should be utilised so that Western Australians, wherever they live, are able to share in the benefits of the wealth that is being created in Western Australia.”

Stephens said the highest priority for the Pilbara region is to have affordable housing.

According to figures released last year by the state government on regional housing and boom towns, the average weekly rent in the Pilbara during 2008 jumped 183%, from $300 to $850 per week. “There is a growing realisation that the [WA] Nationals are rorting the system … there isn’t the focus or the attention on our region that the region deserves,” Stephens says.

Between 2000 and 2009, 133 Homeswest properties were sold in the Pilbara with 37% refurbished and sold under the New Living Program. New public housing completions were extremely low in 2008 with only 23 houses being built in the year. This amounts to a loss of 110 Homeswest properties in the Pilbara. In response to the recent allegations surrounding the CLGF, the Auditor-General Colin Murphy and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee are investigating the matter.

Peter Fray

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