NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is facing questions over bombshell allegations he oversaw the bushfire grants rort.
The Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Program was the topic of senate estimates on Monday morning – after the NSW Audit Office inquiry was handed down earlier this month, which revealed former deputy premier John Barilaro had intervened in the $500 million scheme and altered the threshold.
The program was established after the devastating Black Summer bushfires, and not long after, questions were raised over the integrity of the scheme.
The Auditor-General found Mr Barilaro’s office had quietly changed the minimum threshold of an application to $1 million “without a documented reason”, meaning a number of shortlisted projects, primarily located in Labor-held electorates, were excluded.
The report found almost all of the successful “fast-tracked” projects were in Coalition electorates, while three Labor local government areas severely impacted by the bushfires – the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast and Lismore – were excluded from the fast-track funding.
The Blue Mountains city council had lodged 24 grant applications – totalling $5.45 million combined.
The report ultimately found Mr Bariliaro’s office didn’t “effectively engage with stakeholders” during the process, while Opposition leader Chris Minns accused Mr Barilaro’s office of “pork barrelling”.
Estimates heard the NSW government’s decision to lift the threshold of the bushfire grants was made within the NSW Cabinet’s Expenditure Review Committee – which at the time Mr Perrottet, as Treasurer, chaired.
Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt said the revelation that a cabinet committee had been involved in the decision to move funds away from Labor electorates to Coalition electorates was “an absolutely disgraceful way to treat bushfire victims in their hour of need”.
“It’s bad enough that these people had to go through those bushfires, lose their homes, in some cases lose family members and precious possessions,” Senator Watt said on Tuesday morning.
“But to learn that a Liberal and National Party government interfered directly and moved funds away from them because of the way they voted, or the colour of the seat that they lived in.”
“That is an absolute disgrace, and the Premier has to answer for this … He was chairing the ERC at the time. So he’s got some serious questions to answer.”
At senate estimates on Monday, a national emergency management agency official confirmed they had only been made aware of the changes after the threshold had already been changed.
“The agency found out after the fact. So we weren’t aware at the time of releasing or agreeing that the funds would be released to the NSW government. My understanding is that the decision to finalise projects also had to go through the NSW cabinet process,” the official said.
“And so what we were aware was that there was a decision made in the context of NSW securing their funding through their ERC process. But that was not provided to us.”
Susan Templeman, whose electorate of Macquarie encompasses the Blue Mountains, described the revelation as “disturbing”.
She recalled how the liberal side of her electorate – represented by a coalition state MP – had received millions in grants, while the state Labor side had received “not a cent”.
“The community could not understand why this was happening, when they’d spent months surrounded by smoke,” Ms Templeman said.
“Dominic Perrottet was at the core of those decisions, and it is profoundly heartbreaking for the business community which has since struggled with Covid and with downturn in tourism.
“Who, even now, three years on are wondering how they’re going to survive.
“The NSW Liberal National Government … are responsible for so much of the pain that’s being felt by our Blue Mountains local economy right now.”
Story Credit: news.com.au