ABC VICTORIA STATEWIDE DRIVE
WEDNESDAY, 20 OCTOBER 2021
SUBJECTS: ANAO report on regional grants to major cities; Building Better Regions Fund rorts; National Integrity Commission.
NICOLE CHVASTEK, HOST: Catherine King, good afternoon.
CATHERINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Really good to be with you, Nicole.
HOST: Catherine King, are you convinced by Barnaby Joyce’s response to the question?
KING: He was pretty defensive in Question Time today and I think the fact that they won’t come on your program says a lot. They really don’t want to talk about this very much at all. I think it’s pretty evident from the way in which they’ve been ducking and weaving today about this issue that it’s not really something that they’re willing to talk about or to defend, in a way that you would rationally defend something like this if it was defensible.
HOST: Have you seen the report?
KING: I have looked at the summary of the report, it was tabled in Parliament yesterday and obviously there’s now been reports about it overnight. What’s interesting is that the Australian National Audit Office has taken the Grants Connect portal, they’ve looked at over 100,000 different grants, and what they’ve done is looked at the grants that fit within the regional portfolio and then determined, as you’ve said, that some 27% of those have gone to metro areas. Now, I think that funding particular projects in metro areas, there shouldn’t be an issue with that, however, there is an issue when you start saying that it is out of a regional bucket of money. What the government needs to do is explain why those projects are important and why it keeps trying to say that it’s funding the regions when clearly it’s not.
HOST: This was a tub of money worth $60 billion. Only $2.3 billion was allocated for regional Australia. Why of that tiny amount, given the entirety was $60 billion, was there a need to still take money from regional Australia?
KING: Well, I think that’s a very good question and one the government needs to explain. But what we do know is that where you’ve got big buckets of money that sit within the regional portfolio, this government cannot help itself. In essence, what it continuously does with those buckets of money is to use it for its own electoral advantages. We’ve seen that with the Building Better Regions Fund just recently in the skew in the way in which decisions are made. I think the lack of transparency, the lack of any proper process, that was one of the things the audit report says, that many of those grants were not even contested, they were basically just given at the minister’s discretion. No application process, no capacity for other organisations to apply. Really, the government needs to explain why it thought that was an okay thing to do, including taking money that was allocated for regions away from regions and getting it into capital cities.
HOST: Barnaby Joyce says that the auditor general doesn’t stand by the integrity of the data that he’s published.
KING: Well the government’s been pretty dismissive of all audit reports of late, particularly where they’ve been critical of the government, it would be fair to say. When it comes to things like sports rorts and car park rorts and the Urban Congestion Fund, and the auditor general’s currently looking at the Building Better Regions Fund, the government hasn’t come out looking so great and I’m not surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister would reflect on the Australian National Audit Office in that way. It is an independent office and I think that the Deputy Prime Minister needs to explain what he meant by that.
HOST: He also says that the funding includes the Royal West Children’s Society, which is based in Manly, and this is an organisation which assists children in the regions, and therefore it qualifies.
KING: Well that again might be the case, but it’s difficult without having the Deputy Prime Minister to ask questions of him, you know, why they decided to fund that out of this bucket, why not fund it out of something else? There’s been times in the past where there has been a Major Cities Unit within the Department of Infrastructure, where there are city partnership deals, there are buckets of money that are focused on the city, why use the regional bucket for that? Of course if there is some regional connection, there can’t just be a spurious connection, there actually has to be something that benefits the regions and it’s really up to the Deputy Prime Minister to defend how he’s allocated the funds and the way in which he has.
HOST: The Age reports that the Collingwood Football Club got some money from the regional fund.
KING: Well, again, it’s up to the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why that was important thing to fund out of a regional bucket and not fund that out of a bucket of funding that’s allocated to our cities. But again what we see from this government, there are billions and billions of dollars sitting within the infrastructure department overall and you’ve got at the moment the National Party completely holding the government and the country to hostage over climate change. They’re asking for, so we hear in reports, billions of dollars more money to use at its own whim, when it’s not even able to benefit regional Australia with some of these grants. You have to question what it is that they’re actually doing.
HOST: Pork barelling is not something which is confined to the Coalition though, Catherine King. All political parties, including your own, do it.
KING: I think that’s why it’s important that we actually have a couple of things. One thing Senator Katy Gallagher has introduced is a piece of legislation into the Senate, we’re asking the government to support it, that actually provides for ministers, when they’re making decisions against departmental recommendations to have to report that to the parliament in a timely manner and certainly to report if they’re making grants that are in their own electorates to the Parliament as well. And, obviously, the proposition around an independent anti-corruption commission. This is a government that hates scrutiny, that hates having the spotlight shone on it, because we know, when you do that, you can see that there has been, frankly, under this government unprecedented rorting. We’re not talking about small amounts of money when it comes to sports rorts, car parking rorts and building better regions rorts, these are billions of dollars worth of funding. I think it’s important, and it’s disappointing we’ve got to this point, that if we don’t have transparency, if we don’t have an independent corruption commission, these things are just going to keep going.
HOST: Well the ICAC framework excludes investigation into politicians. Is that the sort of framework that your side will put up if you win office?
KING: No, and Mark Dreyfus has been on the record very strongly about the scheme that has been put up by the government. It’s clear they don’t want to do this. They have put up a spurious scheme, we haven’t seen the final legislation but it’s very clear that this is not they want to do after 8 years in office. They’ve sort of grudgingly said, because there’s public support for it, we had better do something but they’ve certainly put forward an inferior model and we’ve certainly put out quite a lot of detail on the principles of independent corruption commission that does provide for public hearings, does provide for scrutiny on politicians and public servants in decision making, and certainly the legislation that we’ve introduced into the Senate does mean that there will be better accountability. It’s the sorts of things that do put a brake on ministers making decisions that, really, are not necessarily in the public interest but are perhaps in their own or in their own political party’s interests.
HOST: The Finance Minister Simon Birmingham says that the grants that were given to major city postcodes don’t indicate where the money was eventually spent, is that there a valid rebuttal?
KING: Well, it sounded to me that that was the line made up on the run in response to media inquiries for the Audit Office report. It didn’t sound necessarily factual to me but we’ll scrutinise the report, we’ll see if we can get the Audit Office to answer some more questions about it and the details in that. But it looked to me this morning that they we’re just trying to defend the indefensible.
HOST: Thank you for your time.
KING: Good to be with you.
CATHERINE KING – TRANSCRIPT – RADIO INTERVIEW – ABC VICTORIA STATEWIDE DRIVE – WEDNESDAY, 20 OCTOBER 2021