JOHN BARILARO
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

First comes the scandal, then comes the spin.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro has been up in parliament this morning defending his government’s handling of a $177 million bushfire relief fund. 

The government has been accused of using the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery fund (BLER) to pork-barrel in its regional electorates. That includes handing $10 million to a multinational company controlled by one of the Coalition’s biggest donors, Anthony Pratt. 

But Barilaro has another name for the waves of cash being handed to predominantly Coalition-held seats: investment.

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Barilaro told the inquiry that he was “sick to death” of the “mistruth that is spun in relation to this term, pork-barrelling”.

“What we call pork-barrelling is investment,” he said. “I dare you to turn up to these communities and tell them they don’t deserve these projects.”

Greens MP David Shoebridge and various Labor MPs have accused the government of politicising the fund.

According to one analysis, just $2.5 million out of the $177 million in first-round funding went to Labor-held seats with the rest flowing to Coalition seats and the tightly held independent seat of Wagga Wagga.

No money was allocated to projects in the Labor-held state seat of the Blue Mountains, which was the site of one of last year’s worst bushfires. It suffered an economic loss of $65 million, according to the government’s own estimates.

The Labor-held seat of Central Coast was also given no funding despite suffering an economic hit of $163 million.

Barilaro said there was “no conflict” in the fact that the government handed $10 million to Visy despite the company’s owner, Pratt, giving the government $1.5 million in political donations last financial year.

“Legal donations, regardless of where they go, [are] legal,” he said.

He said the government had reached out to Visy and other businesses that had been lobbying the government to alert them to the funding round which prioritised “shovel ready” projects.

“Since being minister of forestry, I’ve never had a conversation with Mr Pratt,” he said.

Barilaro said recipients of the bushfire funding had been identified by the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and signed off on by the federal government as well as the state government. 

The funding also included $11 million for a skydiving business that had been twice rejected for government funding.

Barilaro was also asked about the scandal surrounding the NSW government’s handling of the $250 million Stronger Communities grants scheme, in which documents were shredded by the premier’s office.

He told the inquiry shredding documents “doesn’t give confidence to anyone”.

“We don’t do that in my office,” he said.

Apparently some things are harder to spin than others.