Pork barrelling could be corrupt: ICAC

·3-min read

The NSW corruption watchdog has found pork barrelling could amount to corruption, and has recommended new guidelines be adopted.

Ministers attempting to influence decisions over grant funding, putting pressure on staffers assessing grants, or using their power to hand out grants in marginal electorates, may be engaging in corruption involving pork barrelling, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption said on Monday.

The findings were made as the commission on Monday released Operation Jersey, its report on investigations into pork barrelling in NSW.

Pork barrelling is the practice of targeting public money to certain electorates or electors to curry political support.

The report found five separate instances where ministers could be engaging in corruption under terms in Section 8 of the ICAC Act.

Those included influencing a public servant with decision-making powers on the merits of grants; creating a private advantage by carrying out a merit-based grants scheme in a dishonest way; using ministerial powers to approve grants for personal interest or; using a minister's power to deliver grants to marginal electorates.

The report noted pork barrelling could also in some instances amount to the offence of misconduct in public office, a breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct or the Members' Code of Conduct.

The watchdog said it intends to make clear NSW ministers "do not have an unfettered discretion to distribute public funds", ICAC said on Monday.

"The exercise of ministerial discretion is subject to the rule of law, which ensures that it must accord with public trust and accountability principles," the commission said.

The report includes 21 recommendations to prevent and regulate pork barrelling, including the strengthening of ministerial obligations when deciding to spend taxpayers' money.

It also recommends amendments be made to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, so ministers must swear not to act dishonestly, and that grant-funding frameworks be extended to local councils.

To inform the report, the commission convened a panel of experts in June to discuss the legality of pork barrelling. Outgoing ICAC Chief Commissioner Peter Hall criticised former prime minister Scott Morrison for suggesting pork barrelling was not illegal.

"There appears to be an amount of uncertainty and disinformation as to the lawfulness or otherwise of pork barrelling practices," Mr Hall said at the time.

"Some ministerial comments to similar effects have been made at the state level, suggesting that pork barrelling is normal and legal."

Mr Hall told the panel he was concerned by the comments, saying Mr Morrison lacked legal understanding.

Shadow Special Minister of State John Graham welcomed the commission's advice, saying some ministers had behaved like their power was without bounds.

"We want to see an end to the shredding and hyper-politicised grant giving in NSW," Mr Graham said.

"The premier could immediately back the opposition's Government Grants Administration Bill and help clean NSW grant giving up."

The bill would implement follow-the-dollar provisions and allow members of the public to view upcoming and previously awarded grant details on a central website.

It would also mean ministers who deviated from department advice on funding would have to explain why in writing.

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