Gladys blamed for $252m ‘rort’

 

A parliamentary report has laid the blame for "maladministration" of hundreds of millions in public money at the feet of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

Committee members vowed on Tuesday to refer the government's handling of the $252m Stronger Communities Fund to both the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the NSW Auditor-General.

"The Premier has argued in public that she's never been accused of any wrongdoing. Well, the public accountability committee, with this report, is accusing the Premier of wrongdoing," committee member and Labor MP John Graham said.

The committee will ask the upper house when it next sits in May to refer its investigation to the two independent watchdogs.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian is accused of overseeing the ’clear abuse’ of the grants process. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard
Premier Gladys Berejiklian is accused of overseeing the ’clear abuse’ of the grants process. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

The fund in question was launched to benefit NSW councils that were forcibly merged but was later extended so that more councils were eligible.

The overwhelming majority of the money, 95 per cent, went to Coalition-held districts, the inquiry found.

That grants round was a "clear abuse of the grants process", the committee wrote in its report.

Among the 13 findings the report made was that the Premier and Deputy Premier both approved projects to be funded but failed to adequately document the decision-making process.

In Ms Berejiklian's case, the decision by her office to destroy documents used by the Premier to approve projects was declared unlawful by the State Archives and Records Authority in January, although the watchdog said it wouldn't pursue legal action.

"I don't think was just the committee that was disappointed when we saw the Premier's office literally get away with breaking the law," committee chair and Greens MP David Shoebridge said.

Deputy Premier John Barilaro is also blamed for the ‘maladministration’ of the funds. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard
Deputy Premier John Barilaro is also blamed for the ‘maladministration’ of the funds. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

"Pretty much every member of the public I've spoken to since has said, 'Why is there one rule for politicians and one rule but everybody else?'"

During its inquiry, the committee struggled to get a clear answer as to who was responsible for allocating money from the fund.

But in issuing its report, the members said it was clear to them the Premier and Deputy Premier were to blame.

"It is inconceivable that a quarter of a billion dollars of public money was handed out to project after project with no merit assessment, no documentation," committee chair David Shoebridge said.

"And when we sought to find out who made the decisions, everybody ducked."

Other findings included that the extension of the fund guidelines, so that councils that weren't merged became eligible, were "deliberately devised to accommodate the pork-barrelling scheme".

The report said the guidelines were written in order to settle a legal dispute between two councils, to "win favour with the public in Coalition and marginal seats ahead of the 2019 state election", and to "punish" councils that had resisted the forced mergers.

As part of its broader inquiry into NSW grants, the committee will continue to look into other public funding schemes, including the administration of bushfire relief after the 2019-2020 bushfire catastrophe.

The report also included a range of recommendation to improve the grants process in the state so that there could be oversight into what money is being offered, what the criteria for each grant is, and who is responsible for handing out the money.

The Premier and Deputy Premier have been contacted for comment.

Originally published as Gladys blamed for $252m 'rort'


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