With Byron Shire Council heavily reliant on government grants to fill potholes, commission flood studies and even improve toilet amenities, The Echo asked all NSW election candidates their position on reforming how grants are allocated.
Currently, ministers can grant political favours to certain electorates (called pork barrelling).
For example, in the recent NSW government’s Stronger Country Communities Fund Round Five ‘decision maker’, the Deputy Premier, Paul Toole (Nationals) favoured five projects, one of which was in his own electorate.
The Echo asked candidates, ‘If elected, would you support taking the personal intervention away from ministers, and instead conduct all grant allocation in a transparent process by non-political actors?’
Greens MP, Smith (supports reform)
Greens MP, Tamara Smith told The Echo, ‘Having councils utterly dependent on the whim of government is a very clever political device’.
‘Local councils have been slowly denuded of their resource capability and sustainability through rate pegging, capping of developer contributions, and being denied innovations like tourist tariffs to raise money.
‘In towns like ours, that means we are utterly dependent on government handouts to manage our extremely high infrastructure needs – because of the millions of people using our public spaces and roads each year, with limited means of raising money to pay for upkeep’.
Smith described it as ‘an appalling way to do both economic management and democracy’.
‘It is dumb economically, because rather than having a model based on systematic maintenance of critical infrastructure as the criteria for funding that saves money over time, a grant system means it comes down to at best, luck, at worst, corruption.
‘I have watched Nationals politicians in the Northern Rivers groom mayors and manipulate the grant system to benefit their own political aspirations, and those of their allies. Grants are taxpayers’ dollars, and should be administered with the highest standards of accountability, transparency, and fairness’.
Smith added, funding councils should be ‘based on a metric according to socio-economic status, proximity to public transport, hospitals, and medical treatments, as well as factors like tourist impacts’.
Labor’s Broadley (supports reform)
Labor candidate, Andrew Broadley, told The Echo, ‘It appears as though Byron Shire has been disadvantaged by this distribution of grants with only two projects achieving success. If elected, I would support reforming the process around NSW government grants to councils. Politicians need to be very careful as “Sports Rorts” derailed the political career of high profile Nationals in 2020.
‘[Nationals senator] Brigid McKenzie resigned as deputy leader of the Nationals and from her ministerial portfolio on February 2, 2020, after a report by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet found that she had breached ministerial standards by not declaring her membership of one of the clubs, which had received funding under the program.
‘An independent process that ensures that politicians cannot approve grants in their own electorate is the only way that the public can have confidence that their money is not being used for political advantage’.
Nationals Booyens (does NOT support reform)
Nationals candidate, Josh Booyens, told The Echo, ‘Round Five of the Stronger Country Communities Fund has seen $160 million delivered to every single regional LGA across NSW’.
‘This includes more than $3.7 million for 12 projects in Ballina. The 2022 Review of Grants Administration in NSW made a number of recommendations to improve the NSW government’s delivery of grants.
‘In accordance with the premier’s memorandum, it is now mandatory for all NSW government agencies and ministerial offices to implement the procedures in the Grants Administration Guide’.
Independent Loughrey (supports reform)
Independent, Kevin Loughrey, told The Echo, ‘It doesn’t matter which political party you might prefer, it is wrong for people to play favourites with public money’.
‘I am new to this “game”, but I believe the taxpayers’ money has to be spent in a manner that benefits all taxpayers, not just a partisan segment of the community.
‘Councils should be allocated state money on some sort of formula basis that most council legislators feel is fair and reasonable. How that money is then spent by the council should be left up to the council. This fits with my belief that government works best when it is close to the people it serves.
‘This idea of a council being allocated money specifically for a project by state politicians seems to me to be too much open to abuse.
‘I saw this up close when Ben Franklin was running for the Seat of Ballina, but I have read about it happening with all political parties. Justine Elliott (Labor) and Tamara Smith (Greens) have just recently made announcements about money being allocated for certain specific purposes, and I’m sure the Nationals are up to the same shenanigans’.