NSW deputy premier defends bushfire grants

Hannah Ryan
·3-min read

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro says what others call 'pork barrelling' is actually an investment in the regions, as he defended a number of controversial government grant programs.

Mr Barilaro fronted the NSW parliament's public accountability committee on Monday to answer questions about the integrity of those grant programs.

The inquiry reopened for submissions last week after revelations that most of a $177 million bushfire relief fund has been doled out to projects in coalition-held electorates.

The Labor seat of the Blue Mountains and other electorates held by the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party have so far missed out.

Greens MP and committee chair David Shoebridge said in a statement he was concerned the fund was another "pork-barrelling scheme".

Mr Barilaro argued there was still another $250 million to be allocated under the program, which is jointly funded by the federal and state governments.

He says areas which saw high-fire impact will receive priority under the next round of funding.

Criteria for the first round of funding were available to everyone and were focused on destroyed buildings, Mr Barilaro said.

He added that 90 per cent of buildings damaged in the bushfires were in coalition seats.

Any applications from the Blue Mountains for the first round were not eligible under the criteria, he said.

In a letter to the committee, Mr Barilaro said he felt a sense of "utter disgust" that bushfire recovery had been politicised.

"You would never mark a student's work 25 minutes into an hour long exam, so how can you jump to conclusions when only 40 per cent of (grant) funding has been allocated," he wrote.

Mr Barilaro conceded he had sometimes been called the derogatory nickname "Pork Barilaro".

"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."

The committee hearing became fiery as Mr Barilaro was quizzed on the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund.

In November, Premier Gladys Berejiklian conceded that $140 million in grants approved to councils in the lead-up to the last election was pork barrelling.

Mr Barilaro denied he was behind decisions on which regional local councils should get $60 million of that fund.

His staffer sent emails to the Office of Local Government saying the deputy premier "approved" projects under the scheme. At one stage, OLG chief executive Tim Hurst requested written confirmation that he had approved projects for its "audit records", the committee has heard.

But Mr Barilaro says he never signed anything and it was the OLG that administered the fund.

He said Mr Hurst's email came at the end of the process when projects had already been approved and funding agreements were being discussed.

"You're just saying black is white and war is peace. Your office approved the process," Mr Shoebridge said.

"No, they did not, I'm sorry," Mr Barilaro replied.

He conceded that the inquiry had highlighted problems with the government's processes and record-keeping and said he would be looking to the committee's report to see how those processes could be strengthened.

Mr Hurst also appeared before the committee on Monday, conceding the OLG had done no merit assessment of projects that received money under the fund.

"There are hundreds of projects for which you signed off, more than $210 million of public money ... when nobody did a merit assessment. Can you explain how or why that happened?" Mr Shoebridge asked.

Mr Hurst replied only that the program was administered in accordance with guidelines.

Mr Barilaro earlier said his office did no merit assessment either.