A new rorts scandal has engulfed the NSW government.
Emails, which emerged last week, have ensnared Premier Gladys Berejiklian and deputy premier John Barilaro in an ugly pork-barrelling claim connected to the 2019 state election.
The emails show the premier had direct oversight of at least $100 million worth of funds in the $250 million so-called Stronger Communities Program.
They also reveal the premier intervened to change the guidelines, allowing one local council, Hornsby, to be eligible for $90 million — almost a third of the entire scheme. Hornsby’s mayor is NSW Liberal Party president and former federal minister Philip Ruddock.
Mayors of councils who missed out on funding are angry, saying they had no knowledge the scheme existed. They’re calling it “sports rorts on steroids”.
So what happened?
The 2018 round of the Stronger Communities Fund was set up to help support projects for local councils impacted by former NSW premier Mike Baird’s controversial council amalgamation scheme.
The scheme was theoretically managed by the independent Office of Local Government. But emails obtained by NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, tabled in parliament last week, show the office’s deputy secretary Tim Hurst liaised directly with the premier and deputy premier’s office over particular grants.
They also revealed a large chunk of the money went to councils that weren’t amalgamated, including Hornsby.
Berejiklian’s intervention to change the guidelines came just days before Hornsby announced it had received $90 million in funding — more than any other council. The funding went to big ticket items including transforming an old quarry into a parklands and a new recreational centre.
The emails also reveal the premier signed off on another $12 million for an upgrade for the Coogee Surf Life Saving Club, a new skate park in Ryde and a Bondi Beach playground — all in councils that hadn’t been merged and in seats held by Liberal MPs.
They also show deputy premier John Barilaro signed off on $4 million worth of grants to councils in his own electorate.
The NSW government has defended the scheme, saying councils did not have to be merged to receive funding.
“The Stronger Communities Fund was administered in accordance with the program’s guidelines,” a spokesperson said.
“Funding was provided to Hornsby Shire Council to rehabilitate two former industrial sites and transform them into premier parkland and first-class regional sport and recreation facilities for the people of Sydney’s north.”
Sports rorts on steroids?
Canterbury-Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour told Crikey his council, one of the largest to be merged, was not told about the scheme.
“It’s unfathomable how a government can act like this, just have a funding program for their mates,” he said.
Inner West Mayor Darcy Bryne said his council was also not made aware of the scheme.
“It seems there was no probity or approval process at all. It was simply just ministers misusing money for political purposes,” he said.
The $100 million sports rorts affair — which triggered Senator Bridget McKenzie’s resignation as minister for agriculture and deputy Nationals leader — opened a pandora’s box of grant schemes ripe for manipulation, including one for women’s bathrooms in sports centres, a safer communities scheme and even a commuter carpark fund.
The Stronger Communities scheme involves a pot of money almost twice as big as sports rorts and involves some of the biggest names in the Liberal party.
Shoebridge claims the Liberal party was using the scheme to compensate Hornsby for its failed merger with Ku-ring-gai Council, which aimed to bring with it high-rating land on the Upper North Shore.
“This left Hornsby in a pickle,” he told Crikey. “Suddenly in comes the premier to save the day with a cooked-up set of guidelines for the Stronger Communities Fund that expanded the criteria for funding. That allowed limitless dollars to go towards any council that was the subject of a successful or unsuccessful merger proposal.”
Ruddock told Crikey that the council deserved funding for the failed merger, but said the source of funding was a decision by the NSW government.
“Council had no role in that decision, nor did we have anything to say about it,” he said.
“My role as mayor is to advocate for the people of Hornsby Shire and that is exactly what I have done.”