By Paul Farrell, originally published 5th February 2020 on ABC 7.30.
PAUL FARRELL, REPORTER: The Cronulla Sailing Club boasts million dollar views on Gunnamatta Bay, in the Prime Minister’s electorate of Cook.
In 2017, it received some welcome news.
It had secured a Federal Government grant.
One of thousands awarded in electorates across the country, under the Stronger Communities program, set up in 2015 by the Abbott Government.
So far, it’s provided more than $80 million for relatively small community projects.
TONY HARRIS, FORMER NSW AUDITOR-GENERAL: It could be for anything. It could be for a kitchen, it could be for an elevator, it can be for a toilet. It could be for anything.
PAUL FARRELL: There’s something curious about these grants. Eligible organisations must be invited to apply, by their local MP.
GEOFFREY WATSON, CENTRE FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: It makes it purely political.
PAUL FARRELL: Initially, MPs ask for expressions of interest within their electorates. They work within a community committee, to help determine which groups deserve a formal invitation.
But the MP, chooses who sits on that committee.
The Department of Infrastructure has the final say on who’s awarded a grant.
The Cronulla Sailing Club received more than $8,000 in grant funding for a permanent barbecue on the club’s upper deck.
In November 2018, footage was posted on Facebook three months after Scott Morrison became PM. A representative from the club thanked a staff member from Scott Morrison’s electorate office, for helping prepare the club’s grant application.
VIDEO REEL: For our amazing barbecue out there. Thank you.
PAUL FARRELL: The staffer from Scott Morrison’s office had this to say in response.
FEMALE STAFFER: Thank you but your application was extremely well written. And vote Liberal for ScoMo. Because if you don’t…
GEOFFREY WATSON: Well, that demonstrates that that scheme is flawed.
PAUL FARRELL: Scott Morrison is not a member of the Cronulla Sailing Club and there’s no suggestion of any conflict of interest in inviting the club to apply for the grant. A spokesman for the Prime Minister told 7.30, his staff member regrets and apologises for her comments at the sailing club.
He said applicants only receive technical advice from his electorate office.
Former New South Wales Auditor-General Tony Harris, believes politicians should be removed from the grant process.
TONY HARRIS: If you’re going to have a grants scheme, make it at arm’s length from all political activities.
PAUL FARRELL: A spokesman for the Prime Minister said the grant program was designed to take advantage of the local insights of MPs and community groups.
GEOFFREY WATSON: These schemes have got to be protected, so that they remain independent.
It doesn’t only happen in the Prime Minister’s seat. I guess, it would have been happening all over Australia.
PAUL FARRELL: We’ve uncovered cases where MPs invited clubs to apply for Stronger Communities grants.
Clubs where they themselves were members – which is allowed under the grant rules as long as they declare it.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor is a member of the Goulburn Triathlon Club.
In February 2019, his club received a Stronger Communities grant of more than $4,000 to help pay for new timing equipment.
Angus Taylor said in a statement, he adhered to the strict Stronger Communities program guidelines and declared his membership of the club.
It’s an issue that crosses the political divide.
West Australian Labor MP Matt Keogh invited the Kelmscott agricultural society in his electorate to apply for a Stronger Communities grant.
It was awarded almost $4,000 to buy new laptops and software in 2018.
Matt Keogh has been a member of the society since 2003.
A spokesman for Matt Keogh told 7.30 his membership of the society and the potential for a conflict of interest, was brought to the attention of his consultation committee at the appropriate time.
Geoffrey Watson from the Centre for Public Integrity, believes the Federal grants system needs a shake-up.
GEOFFREY WATSON: The individual preferences of the individual member of parliament, will dictate the flow of funds. That’s wrong. It’s actually our money, well taxpayers money. It should be going to the people who need it most, the most worthy.