Coast rorted out of bushfire grants

Last Friday the Grapevine reported that the Auditor General’s published findings into the $100 million Bushfire Local Economic Recovery (BLER) program found that then - Deputy Premier John Barilaro and his office directly intervened to ‘pork barrell’ 96 per cent of these funds to seats held by the Liberal or National Party. And what about Premier Dominic Perrottet’s alleged involvement? – he has questions to answer after it has now been revealed that he oversaw the administration of the bushfire grants rort.


It seems that a $194,000 grant from the BLER program for the construction of a ‘Meadery’ at Somersby by a Sydney North Shore apiarist, who was not impacted by the bushfires, held more sway for the Liberals than fire-impacted Central Coast businesses.

17 February 2023



THE NSW Government’s decision to lift the threshold of the bushfire grants, the subject of the NSW Audit Office inquiry, was made within the NSW Cabinet’s Expenditure Review Committee (ERC), a Senate estimates hearing has been told.


The ERC was overseen by Dominic Perrottet while he was Treasurer.


The Auditor-General found that the office of the former Deputy Premier John Barilaro set minimum thresholds of $1 million, resulting in 26 of the 27 projects being in Coalition-held electorates.


Three highly impacted Local Government Areas in Labor-held electorates,  the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains and Tenterfield (Lismore), were excluded from fast-track funding.


The Central Coast LGA suffered an economic impact of $163.3 million; Blue Mountains LGA $65.4 million; and Tenterfield $9.7 million and were all overlooked in the fast-track round.


When first asked about the Auditor-General’s report, Mr Perrottet stood by the government for “getting money out of the gate”. He was not forthcoming about his role in the decision to change the rules that would exclude Labor-held electorates.


This week before the Senate estimates hearing, Senator Green asked a National Emergency Management Agency official the following question: “Was the agency informed who made the decisions informed that the threshold had been changed? Once you found out, did you find out who made that decision?”


The official replied: “The agency found out about that after the fact. So, we weren't aware at the time of releasing or agreeing that the funds would be released to the NSW Government. My understanding is that the decision to finalise projects also had to go through the NSW cabinet process. And so, what we were aware was that there was a decision made in the context of NSW securing their funding through their ERC process.”


Commonwealth public servants also told the Senate estimates that the decision to increase the threshold for bushfire recovery grants came from the NSW cabinet and Expenditure Review Committee.


During the 2019 Black Summer bushfires, Dominic Perrottet was Treasurer and oversaw the NSW Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee. Yet, not surprisingly, Perrottet has been unable to outline his role in the bushfire grants rorts.


At his own press conferences this week the Premier was unable to rule out rubberstamping the bushfire grants threshold.


Last Monday, at a press conference, when asked by a journalist “On bushfire grants Premier, did changes to that New South Wales bushfire grants process go through the ERC stage?”


Perrottet replied, “Not that I’m aware.”


Then on Tuesday of this week when a journalist asked “This program you reported to ICAC, could you just clarify, that the ERC did not consider changing the threshold for grants?”


Perrottet replied “I will have the check that.”


“You said that yesterday,” the journalist said.


“I’ll tell you why a bit later. But what I can say is that ERC acts on Treasury advice in relation to grants programs. It is the role of the minister that makes determinations in relation to that allocation,” Perrottet replied.


The journalist then said “But that doesn’t answer the question, did John Barilaro make the decision and then put it through ERC for a rubber stamp?”


“I have to take that on notice and double check. It’s a very important point. You act on the treasury – when matters come before ERC,” said Perrottet.


The journalist finally asked, “So, it’s not out of the question that John Barilaro took this to ERC for your rubber stamp?”


“I’ll have to check,” replied Perrottet.


So, there you have it – full circle and the Perrottet side-step continues – a political waltz popular with the current Liberal government. And it’s easy to master the steps – just spin the top, hold hands and around, and around you go.


John Graham, NSW Shadow Special Minister of State said “The Premier has serious questions to answer. Dominic Perrottet chaired the ERC as Treasurer at the time. Did the bushfire grants threshold change go through ERC?”


Jihad Dib, NSW Shadow Minister for Emergency Services said “The Premier stayed silent on his role when the auditor general’s report came out two weeks ago. It has taken federal government estimates to bring this to light.”


Mr Dib said that the Senate estimates further confirms that the NSW Coalition Government essentially made the rules up on the run and did so for political purposes.


“The pork barrelling of disaster relief was an inexcusable breach of faith with the community. Either Dominic Perrottet was complicit or negligent in his role. Either way he should have stopped it from happening,” he said.


Member for Wyong and Shadow Minister for the Central Coast, David Harris said in the Grapevine’s exposé last Friday, on the BLER rorting, “One would have thought that disaster recovery funding wouldn’t be politicised but unfortunately under this government nothing is off limits when it comes to pork barrelling.”


Member for Gosford, Liesl Tesch said “When our community needed support, the NSW Liberal-National Government turned its back on our community.”


Dominic Perrottet needs to come clean and outline what he knew and what role he played in a grants process that was changed to pork barrel bushfire grants into Liberal and National held seats. It needs to explain why the Central Coast was rorted out of $163.3 million in favour of a ‘Meadery’.


And let‘s not forget the Liberal Member for Terrigal, Adam Crouch – in February 2021 local ABC Radio was wanting an interview with him about the BLER program funding but he declined. Why? Was it because the BLER grants were for bushfire recovery and not for the construction of a Meadery?

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