It’s a basic political rule that whenever the Nationals are allowed near a grants program, a strong odour of pork will pervade proceedings, and the familiar aroma surrounds the “Regional Growth Fund”, a $272 million program overseen by Nationals leader Michael McCormack that “will provide grants of $10 million or more for major projects that support long-term economic growth and create jobs in regional areas”.
On Sunday, McCormack announced a number of projects that would receive funding. Well, more accurately, he announced that “the Government has selected 16 projects to progress to the next stage” “with applicants asked to submit full business cases for approval”.
This was a strange announcement for a couple of reasons. For one, grants programs don’t normally have announcements about various internal processes; you advertise for applications, you assess them, you award the grants to the lucky winners and issue a media release revelling in your largesse.
Still, given McCormack is under pressure from Barnaby Joyce, the accused sexual harasser who wants to return to the deputy prime ministership, this rather premature announcement might have been designed to serve another agenda.
The other peculiarity is why projects have got this far in the assessment process without a “full business case” on which to make any evaluation. Then again, this is a Nationals fund we’re talking about, so the normal rules about targeting projects with the best value for money don’t apply. Alternatively, the government could simply already have made up its mind to throw money at these projects without bothering to do a proper analysis of the costs and benefits of each.
That certainly seems to be the assumption of The Courier-Mail, which reported about one of the 16 projects, “the business case will be successful to trigger the release of Commonwealth funding under the Government’s Regional Growth Fund”. Funny that a media outlet with close government links already knows the result of the business case assessment before a business case is even lodged. Guess they must be clairvoyant, huh?
That particular project has some other interest as well. Ten of the 16 projects are government or non-profit bodies (mostly the former) that have applied to build infrastructure of varying kinds. Rockhampton Council, for example, wants to build a flood levee in South Rocky. The NT government wants to build flood mitigation works for Katherine. The city of Swan in Western Australian wants to build a highway linking the Great Northern Highway to the Northlink WA Project. Such projects can be assessed on a consistent cost-benefit basis. But six of the others are businesses. Norco wants to expand its ice cream facilities in Lismore. Bundaberg Brewed Drinks wants to build a “super brewery”, whatever that is. And the project referenced by The Courier-Mail is an artillery shell plant that will be built by NIOA Nominees, a gun company run by Bob Katter’s son-in-law Robert Nioa. Nioa is a generous donor to his father-in-law’s party, though not to the Nationals, so at least McCormack has displayed some non-partisanship in project selection.
NIOA’s partner in the project is German weapons manufacturer Rheinmetall, which has a very successful Australia vehicle arm. Rheinmetall was blacklisted by the Indian government in 2012 for bribery, and last year beat charges that it bribed officials to have it removed from the anti-bribery blacklist. A Rheinmetall subsidiary paid a 37 million euro fine four years ago in Greece in relation to bribery as well. That evidently didn’t bother the government, nor Bridget McKenzie, McCormack’s deputy who co-announced the grants on the weekend. When she’s not doing her day job, McKenzie is Chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Shooting. In June, McKenzie hosted a meeting of the group with special guests Commonwealth games shooting medallists Daniel Repacholi and Laetisha Scanlan. A good time was presumably had by all attendees, including NIOA.