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Michael Pascoe: Unrepentant, the Coalition pork barrel rolls on with Building Better Regions Fund

Exposure will not weary them, nor shame condemn – the giant pork barrel that is the federal government’s web of grants and rorts rolls on regardless.

With the stench of the “#carporks” still fresh, the latest instalment from grant corruption central is Round Five of the Building Better Regions Fund – $300 million worth of political largesse hopelessly skewered towards electorates held by the coalition and independents.

Spreadsheet sleuth Vince O’Grady analysed the $294 million “infrastructure projects stream” to find funds were allocated according to form – 16 per cent to Labor electorates, 11 per cent to seats held by independents and 73 per cent to Coalition seats.

That is actually slightly less partisan than previous BBRF grants. The Labor seat score has been as low as 5 per cent.

The relevant minister, Barnaby Joyce, trumpeted the latest handouts that take the BBRF total to $1.38 billion.

And the relevant shadow minister, Catherine King, panned them, noting that the Australian National Audit Office has already announced the program will be audited.

“This is why the Morrison-Joyce government won’t introduce a National Integrity Commission. It would get in the way of rorts like this,” Ms King said.

As we’ve previously reported, the “regional” part of BBRF points the cash outside capital cities to areas where Coalition and independent members are in the clear majority.

 

Labor claims it nonetheless holds 34 per cent of eligible seats while only receiving a much smaller fraction of the dollars.

Pushing the Coalition “regional” barrow also makes no allowance for where community development funds are most urgently needed – or not needed at all.

Fringe areas, such as Caboolture north of Brisbane, don’t qualify as “regional”, but ritzy Sunshine Beach a little further north, adjoining Noosa, does.

Sunshine Beach’s main claim to fame over the past 18 months has been the sky-rocketing price of housing, the median shack there now worth $2.65 million.

Yet, judging by the BBRF’s priorities and despite the millions of dollars people have been throwing at real estate agents to live there, something is desperately lacking in Sunshine Beach.

Yes, Sunshine Beach doesn’t have “an all-weather pickleball facility”. Thankfully, via the BBRF and the good offices of local member Llew O’Brien, federal taxpayers are kicking in half of the $497,000 it will cost to build one.

(No, I didn’t know what pickleball was either. It’s allegedly a cross between tennis, ping pong and badminton, played on a badminton court with a lower net. I can only hope Sunshine Beach will soon get the all-weather dodgeball facility it so urgently needs.)

Some of the projects receiving grants are unquestionably worthy, while some are in the pickleball class or simply dubious.

And it is simply poor governance for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, regional aged care and mental health initiatives to have to compete for funds with numerous bowling clubs (frequent winners) and lesser lights.

There also are governance questions to ask about why federal government money is going to commercial ventures.

For example, the Inverell Regional Livestock Exchange in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate is a sale yard processing a couple of thousand head a week. Livestock prices are surging, but federal taxpayers are tossing in $631,000 to “upgrade facilities”.

Roxby Downs, practically a company town servicing BHP’s Olympic Dam mine, boasts of its sporting clubs yet federal taxpayers will pay $2.74 million towards a “multi-use sports facility”.

Perhaps the most “interesting” of the 298 grants though fittingly went to Bob Katter’s seat of Kennedy.

If there’s an electorate that has scored more grant money under the Coalition than Kennedy, I haven’t seen it. The power of Mr Katter’s independent vote is most impressive.

Mr Katter thanked the federal government after his electorate grabbed more than $15 million of the BBRF Round Five pot – 5 per cent of the total infrastructure grants, about as much as the other independents’ seats combined.

The biggest grant, $9.74 million, was for a new Royal Flying Doctor facility in Mount Isa.

Not too far behind though was cash for the Cloncurry Shire Council to get into the housing business on land it already owns.

The minutes of the council’s special council meeting on March 2 make fascinating reading.

Applications for the BBRF grants were about to close on March 5, but in just three days consultants could come up with the necessary paperwork for a valid application.

The special meeting agenda shows the proposal was for the council to have “agreements with business/mining sectors to occupy the houses on a long-term basis”. So this is the council getting into the competitive rental business, not social housing.

On March 2, the council expected the application would seek $4.5 million from the BBRF, but what’s a few more hundred thou’ in the great seat of Kennedy? Federal taxpayers are up for $5.1 million of the expected $6.75 million total cost.

A quick check of Realestate.com.au finds the most expensive asking price of the couple of hundred Cloncurry houses listed for sale is $470,000 – and that comes with half a hectare of land.

The council houses are budgeted to cost an average of $750,000 to build – and remember that council already owns the land. There seems to be no shortage of houses in Cloncurry for half that price.

The Auditor-General might wonder if this is a good use of Commonwealth money, if this grant makes sense, or is just pork barrelling for Kennedy.

Another grant of $507,000 for Mount Isa’s centenary celebrations looks cheap.

That’s out of the $6 million small beer community stream where there are all manner of events that attract the federal government’s political reach.

How about $25,000 for Meatstock Toowoomba 2022, “a three-day beef and barbecue festival”, or $203,000 for the “Chardonnay Avenue Yarra Valley event, a street party-style event in May 2022”, or $62,000 towards Dirranbandi’s Paul Kelly & Friends Concert 2021, which was held in July.

I didn’t notice anything quite as enticing as Gunnedah’s $20,000 for seven “messy play days” that turned up in Round Four, but there hasn’t been time to look too closely.

There are 298 stories in the BBRF Round Five barrel. These are just a few of them.

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