The mayor of Blue Mountains council has contradicted the New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro’s claim that it did not receive money from a $177m bushfire recovery fund because its application did not meet the grant’s conditions, saying the projects were “shovel ready”.
Appearing before a parliamentary inquiry into the state government’s alleged pork barrelling of council grants in NSW on Monday, Barilaro defended the government’s allocation of bushfire relief funding to Coalition-held seats, saying councils in Labor-held seats including the Blue Mountains had not been eligible because they were not of sufficient size or readiness.
But the Blue Mountains mayor, Mark Greenhill, disputed that, saying after Barilaro’s appearance at the inquiry that the projects put forward by the council were “carefully thought-out” and “shovel-ready projects”.
The NSW parliamentary committee is investigating the “integrity, efficacy and value for money” of NSW government grant programs, and has previously heard that money from the $252m Stronger Communities fund went overwhelmingly to Coalition-held seats and the documents show only Coalition MPs were consulted.
Last year the state’s premier, Gladys Berejiklian, conceded that $140m in grant money given to councils in the lead-up to the last state election amounted to pork barrelling, but insisted there was nothing illegal about it. The inquiry previously heard that her office had shredded documents associated with the fund.
On Monday, Barilaro, who has favourably adopted the nickname John Pork–Barrel-aro, also defended the practice, saying he was “sick to death of the mistruths spun about pork barrelling”.
“If we fund a government seat, it’s a rort,” he said. “If we fund a non-government seat, it’s only because we want to win them at the next election.”
While he admitted that shredding documents “does not give confidence to anybody”, Barilaro argued that what others call “pork barrelling” is actually an “investment” in the regions.
“It’s a name that I’ve never distanced myself from because I’m actually proud of … what it represents,” he told the committee.
“What we call pork barrelling is investment … I dare you to turn up to these communities and tell them why they don’t deserve these projects.
“When you think about it, every single election that every party goes to, we make commitments. You want to call that pork barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, it’s what the elections are for.”
Berejiklian has previously denied she had a role in approving funding for the $252m Stronger Communities fund, despite the Office of Local Government chief executive, Tim Hurst, submitting a document to the committee in October stating the premier had “allocated” $141.8m of the funding while Barilaro had been responsible for a further $61.3m.
On Monday Barilaro also denied he had been responsible for approving the funds, saying his office had only given “feedback”, which was “entirely appropriate”. That was despite a document tabled by the committee showing Hurst had written to his office asking for written confirmation that he had approved projects for its “audit records”.
“I’m sorry, but as deputy premier, I was nobody in this process … we just gave feedback,” he said.
“I thought those projects were fine but I didn’t sign off on them … I didn’t have the authority to sign off on them.
“My signature does not appear on any document that signs off on the funding and the ability to cut a cheque.”
Appearing before the committee on Monday afternoon, Hurst also confirmed that the OLG had not completed a merit assessment of projects that received funds under the grant.
“There are hundreds of projects for which you signed off, more than $210m of public money … when nobody did a merit assessment. Can you explain how or why that happened?” Greens MP David Shoebridge asked.
Hurst maintained the program was administered in accordance with “guidelines”.
Separately, the bushfire grants program has come under criticism from Labor and the Greens after revelations that three areas in non-Coalition electorates did not receive any funding despite suffering millions of dollars in losses.
That included the Blue Mountains, where, the Guardian has previously revealed, no funding was allocated despite the council submitting more than 20 proposals worth $5.45m in a bid to address the estimated $65m in economic damage it suffered as a result of the bushfires.
Two other areas in non-Coalition seats – the Central Coast and Ballina – also missed out on funding despite seeing damage worth $163m and $4.2m respectively.
But on Monday Barilaro defended the funding decisions, saying they were based primarily on the number of buildings lost or damaged during fires, which were overwhelmingly in Coalition-held areas.
“When you look at the list of local government areas that were impacted … off the [Rural Fire Service] data, 90% of buildings damaged [or] destroyed were in Coalition seats, so I can’t hide from that,” he said.
“If you [look] back to the whole impact, not just buildings, 77% were in Coalition seats.”
Barilaro said that while the Blue Mountains had missed out on bushfire relief funding, the area had received $26m in separate grant support and insisted that future projects would be prioritised for the area.
“The Blue Mountains did actually lodge [applications] but they didn’t meet the criteria. But that doesn’t exclude them … We will be working with Blue Mountains council to fast-track in this round that investment,” he said.
“The projects weren’t ready under the criteria that they had to be able to be completed within six months or started within six months … [with] a million-dollar minimum threshold.
“The reality here is that we work with communities that had projects ready to go. It wasn’t done off the back of if you’re a Liberal or a National or a Labor or non-government seat. It was based on public servants working through projects they were aware could start within six months. The Blue Mountains, the projects they put up didn’t meet criteria.”
But Greenhill said that after being approached by the NSW government “rather informally” it had put forward more than 20 projects that it said would “help boost economic activity” in the region.
“These submissions were carefully thought-out and would have assisted our community. They were shovel-ready projects,” he said.
“We found out we had missed out on funding from this stream, in the media.
“The state government did respond originally to say they had received our submission, but they never came back with any reason why these projects were not successful. We were certainly never told about additional criteria that we did not meet, even though we persisted in asking for feedback.
“I am calling on the government to reconsider and support our Blue Mountains.
“The second round of funding will come out close to 18 months after the bushfires. It will be too late for many Blue Mountains businesses.”
The Guardian has previously reported that among the recipients of bushfire relief funding was a paper mill owned by one of Australia’s richest people and major political donor, Anthony Pratt.
Pratt’s company, Visy, a multinational corporation, received $10m to boost production at its Tumut mill as part of the fund’s industry assistance stream.
Pratt is Australia’s third-richest person, and donated more than $3m to the Liberal and Labor parties prior to the 2019 federal election, giving roughly $1.4m to the Liberals and $1.6m to Labor through his company Pratt Holdings.
On Monday Barilaro was questioned about the funding by Greens MP David Shoebridge, who asked why the government had allocated funding for “a hugely profitable multinational” while some people in bushfire-affected areas have been unable to rebuild their homes.
“It’s simple, we put up $10m because of the devastation that happened to the forestry industry in the south – 1,200 direct jobs out of Visy alone … This doesn’t just shore up new jobs it shores up those jobs for the future,” Barilaro said.