RN BREAKFAST WITH FRAN KELLY
MONDAY, 24 FEBRUARY 2020
SUBJECTS: Urban Congestion Fund; Regional Development Grants; Climate Change.
FRAN KELLY: Three billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to try and fix traffic congestion is the latest scheme to find itself at the centre of pork barrelling accusations being levelled at the Morrison Government.
Labor’s claiming “rorting on a nuclear scale” after analysis showed 83 percent was allocated before last year’s election to marginal seats the Coalition already held or was trying to win from Labor.
Catherine King is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure; she joins me in the Parliament House studios, Catherine King welcome back to Breakfast.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Good morning, nice to be with you.
KELLY: The Urban Congestion Fund was first announced in the 2018 Budget, possibly with an eye to last year’s election but no one was thinking about that at the time really, it was all about congestion busting. You’ve done some analysis of this $3 billion fund, what have you found? How much went to Coalition seats and how much to Labor?
KING: Well 83 percent has gone to Liberal Party seats or seats the Liberal Party was targeting in the 2019 election campaign. If you take out the target seats, 70 percent of it, in fact, went to Liberal Party seats across the country. And you’ve got to say, you know, this is a program that was budgeted for in the 2018 Budget. Basically, nothing much happened for a year, no guidelines, no call out for expressions of interest.
Yet suddenly this huge flurry of activity just before the election and during the election campaign, announcing over 160 projects, 144 of which are in seats that the Liberal Party hold or were targeting in the election campaign. And not only that, to add insult to injury, they then had $17 million of taxpayers funds on advertising telling us how good this program was.
KELLY: Okay, let’s just step it back a minute, 144 projects, how much did that add up to?
KING: So $2.5 billion was that 144 projects, the overall was $3 billion.
KELLY: And how much of that $2.5 billion, the 144 projects were actually promised in the election campaign?
KING: There’s a mix, so there were a very small amount that were announced prior to the election. So there were a small number of projects across the country most announced during the election campaign.
But again, you have to ask this is something that was announced as a government budgeted fund during the 2018 Budget. It’s sat there for a year with very little activity. Then suddenly, this massive flurry of activity in the lead up to the election.
KELLY: I remember this announcement, I think, it was about roundabouts, it was about park-and-ride, it was about congestion busting and getting local shovel-ready projects going in communities. Is that correct?
KING: That’s correct.
KELLY: Were these grants allocated by competitive tender?
KING: Absolutely nothing. We don’t know is part of the problem in terms of the lack of transparency, were, you know, MPs weren’t asked for their views, we didn’t have local councils being written to, as far as we understand, being asked, state governments asking to submit. There’s just no process around this at all. It seems to be that the Government’s picked favourites, and it’s certainly picked favourites in its own seats or seats that were to its advantage.
KELLY: Well, the Government said Labor didn’t put up its hand for any projects.
KING: We weren’t asked.
KELLY: The Government says many projects were funded in Labor seats and only one Labor MP sought money from the scheme. Maybe it’s your fault?
KING: Well, according to the Government it’s our fault that Labor seats don’t get funded in a program where there’s no application process or no call for any MPs to write or to ask for it. This is clearly a program that has been used by the Government, again, to its electoral advantage. When you look at that, you know, out of the $3 billion, the 160 projects, to have 144 projects $2.5 billion of which has been directed to Liberal Party held seats and to seats that they’re targeting, you have to say something has gone wrong here. Not from the Government’s perspective, it’s obviously used it exactly how it intended to use it – to pork barrel during an election campaign.
KELLY: Speaking of election campaign, pork barrelling. I mean that’s what elections are they are, picture opportunity after picture opportunity. Announcement after announcement from both sides saying if we win, we will do this. The Minister Alan Tudge says Labor made promises of close to 60 urban projects during the election campaign, all of which were in Labor seats or Labor targeted seats. Are you any different or any better?
KING: So what normally happens during an election campaign, you know, either side of politics makes election commitments, if they win, they are then in a separate fund. So, for example, the Government’s got this Community Development Grants fund, so you separate those election commitments out and you acknowledge they are election commitments, and the process for deciding on those is the election.
But what you don’t have is when you’ve got a Government-funded program, the Urban Congestion Fund put in a budget, that is supposed to have guidelines, it’s meant to have transparency around it. And it is subject to the National Audit Office auditing it.
This is not what the Government did here. If it is now arguing that all of those announcements are just election announcements, it can’t fund them through the Urban Congestion Fund.
And then why did it use $17 million of taxpayer funds to advertise it? It should have been using Liberal Party funds to advertise this program.
KELLY: Well, speaking of the Auditor-General, this congestion fund has already been referred, I think, by Labor to the Auditor-General, so why not allow that analysis to come out before you go shooting from the hip?
KING: Well, because it’s so egregious, frankly, it is so egregious.
KELLY: We don’t have the analysis.
KING: We don’t have any guarantee that the Auditor-General will look at it. We’ve written to them because we think this is so egregious that it needs to be looked at.
I hope that it very much does so, but the Auditor General is an independent body and it’ll make its own decision about that. We think this is so egregious, it’s such a level of rolling that it needs to be called out.
KELLY: Speaking of egregious, you yourself were investigated by the Auditor‑General when you were a Minister over $100 million for regional development projects that weren’t recommended by an Independent Advisory Council. Now that sounds familiar. What is that? What is that if not pork barrelling, if not as egregious as the claims against Bridget McKenzie?
KING: Yeah, so what we had been the Government was under pressure with the sports rorts inquiry was it was throwing at every possible defence that it could and it went back to an audit report when I was the Regional Development Minister.
KELLY: Sure, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t true.
KING: So it’s throwing out a number of inaccurate facts about that. I would have to say. The first thing that it was saying is that I funded ineligible projects, which in fact, is completely and utterly a lie and the Government knows that it’s a lie and I’ve asked them to correct that several times.
KELLY: Ineligible or not, did you fund most of them or a hundred million that weren’t recommended by the advisory panel?
KING: No, and again, that’s completely and utterly inaccurate. So two thirds of the projects that I funded were in seats not held by Labor. So concerned was the Government about this, that when they came to office they actually signed the contracts for all of these programs that I had decided and funded every single one of them.
This inquiry was subject to a Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit inquiry, and it clearly found that there was no electoral bias in the decisions that I was taking. And if you look at what the accusations that we’ve got in the Government in sports rorts, and now this, this is about electoral bias. In the program that I funded, two thirds of the funding or two thirds of the projects went to seats that Labor with didn’t actually hold.
KELLY: Ok. Nevertheless, the finding was that some hundred million went to projects…
KING: That’s actually not true. That’s a figure the Government is putting out to try and defend itself. That’s not accurate.
KELLY: Nevertheless, some element of that, community rorts, Regional Jobs Investment Packages, the Urban Congestion Fund, should these discretionary decisions be taken out of the hands of politicians? You’ve been a Minister, you are now Shadow Minister, would you support that?
KING: I think there has to be transparency and I think again, when I go back to the, the Audit report in the program when I was Regional Development Minister, what’s required of you, if you are funding things that are not recommended, and you have that within your discretion to do on the basis of it, maybe you
KELLY: But maybe we can’t trust our politicians?
KING: We should be able to.
KELLY: Time and again we can’t.
KING: And that’s the problem that we’re seeing here, you’re right. When you’ve got these large scale programs, in this case, the Urban Congestion Fund – $3 billion being used to electorate advantage in the way that it has, a lack of transparency, no opportunity for people to actually apply.
You do have to say, there needs to be much greater accountability when it comes to these programs and much greater transparency.
KELLY: But not take it out of the hands of politicians?
KING: I think you’re always going to have an element of ministerial decision making. That’s after all, at the end of the day, we’re responsible and ministers are responsible. But when they are making decisions, where it is clearly being rorted for electorate advantage, they also have to be responsible for that and that’s why we’re calling this out.
KELLY: Catherine King, just finally Labor now has a commitment for emissions of zero emissions by 2050. That will be whole of economy, economy-wide. That will include the agriculture sector, agriculture in and around your Victorian seat of Ballarat is worth around $638 million. It includes cattle. Would you expect blowback from your constituents about this? And will there be any help for the ag sector as it’s called upon to decarbonise?
KING: Again, this has been a really important announcement by Labor to set the net zero by 2050 target, to actually start to say we have to lay down the target and then develop a plan to get there.
In terms of agriculture, there are great opportunities for agriculture, particularly in areas like carbon sinking, also in the forestry industry.
I would expect within my own community, who know, we’ve experienced significant droughts, we’ve experienced bushfires, in our period of time as well, people in agriculture know that there is change coming and they want to be part of that change, and there are great opportunities for a net carbon zero future to 2050.
KELLY: But there could be great costs too, great costs?
KING: That’s again the issue that, we talk about both things. You’ve got to talk about both, the benefits and the costs. The Government, basically, is pretending that there are no benefits, and it also refuses to talk about the cost of doing nothing.
For agriculture, there are significant costs for doing nothing, and we’ve already seen that in this country. We’ve seen that with the significant droughts we’ve had. And I know many people in agriculture in my electorate would look forward to the opportunities that net zero brings and really want to be part of that future.
KELLY: Catherine King thank you very much for talking to us.
KING: It’s good to be with you.
TRANSCRIPT – RADIO INTERVIEW – RN BREAKFAST WITH FRAN KELLY – MONDAY, 24 FEBRUARY 2020