An integrity expert has called for an independent inquiry into the Tasmanian Liberal Party’s use of a controversial grants fund during the 2021 election campaign, arguing millions of dollars of taxpayer money may have been misappropriated.

The Liberals established the Local Communities Facilities Fund as an election promise, and a “Liberal Party Policy team” internally decided which organisations would benefit from the $15m taxpayer-funded scheme based on applications made by candidates on behalf of organisations.

The ABC can reveal that now-sports Minister Nic Street announced a $50,000 grant for the Lindisfarne Country Women’s Association branch during last April’s election campaign — the same branch a family member was the treasurer of. 

And, a $165,000 grant was awarded to St Vincent de Paul, the workplace of then-Liberal candidate Lara Alexander, for new vans.

After Ms Alexander failed to win a seat she returned to her position with the organisation as Tasmanian chief executive. 

She has since been elected to parliament after a recount following the resignation of former education minister Sarah Courtney earlier this year.

The Centre for Public Integrity’s Geoffrey Watson, SC, said public money should never be allocated without proper justification, and must be independent of external influence.

“It’s inappropriate that a politician would be making a grant which could benefit even indirectly a friend, a member of family, or their own political party, full stop,” Mr Watson said. 

“We know both sides of politics do this, it’s just got to stop.”

Tasmanian Greens Leader Cassy O’Connor said the system was unfair for groups who did not have access to the money. 

“We all want to see St Vincent de Paul continue to do its fantastic charity work, but this is a grant that was allocated without process,” she said. 

“Organisations who know someone in the Liberal Party, or are related to them, are treated more favourably than a whole range of other, deserving organisations.” 

The latest connections follow revelations Liberal Minister Madeleine Ogilvie announced a $150,000 grant for her daughter’s rowing club, and that Tasmanian Liberal MPs were patrons or members of at least seven organisations that received grants from the fund. 

One group that was never made aware that the fund existed was Baseball Tasmania. 

Although the sport is growing, its facilities are lacking. 

Baseball Tasmania President John Hayes said there was only one purpose-built baseball diamond in the state, in the Hobart suburb of Derwent Park.

There are no lights, they don’t have their own change rooms, and volunteers last year pitched in to build the mound. 

“Facility wise, council has been pretty good, but as you can see we don’t have any lighting, we don’t have any change rooms that are our own,” Mr Hayes said. 

“To grow the game, there’s only seven days in the week, and if you don’t have lights and you’ve got one major field, that makes it really challenging.”

Mr Hayes said baseball needs funds to grow, and more transparency around the existence of the fund would have been preferable. 

“It would have been nice to have an opportunity,” Mr Hayes said. 

The ABC asked the Liberal Government to provide details of where it was announced during the campaign that the Local Communities Facilities Fund was being established, but no details were given. 

More than 220 grants were pledged during the campaign, but because they were election promises they were never assessed by the Communities Department.

The fund was not costed by Treasury prior to the election. 

Professor A.J. Brown from Griffith University and Transparency International said Tasmania appeared to have taken a “dangerous step in the wrong direction.” 

“These decisions are being pre-made as a party political decision, rather than being a properly made, authorised decision of government under law after a budget, as opposed to before a budget,” he said. 

“There’s clearly a pattern of if not actual conflicts of interest, which some of them seem to be, then definitely apparent conflicts of interest which have gone totally unmanaged.”

Professor Brown has called for an inquiry into what has gone on in Tasmania. 

“I think there’s an arguable case that the money has effectively been misappropriated right from the word go,” he said. 

“Compared to the big scandals about rorting at a Commonwealth level and in NSW, it’s clear that Tasmania has an even worse case of this disease.

“There needs to be an independent inquiry, whether by the Auditor General or by the Tasmanian Integrity Commission, to really understand what is so corrosive and corrupting of politics through a scheme like this so the lessons can be learned and this type of practice can be terminated.”

Earlier this year, Tasmania’s integrity commission released a research paper investigating pork barrelling in the state at previous elections.

That report raised questions over $21.4 million in taxpayer money given out by the Liberals as regional grants at the 2018 state election, but did not cover 2021.

A government spokesman said the 2021 grants were documented in the budget papers after the election. 

“We do not believe and the community would not expect organisations to be ineligible for funding requests during an election campaign simply because a candidate is linked to an organisation or has a distant relative involved,” the spokesman said. 

“The important thing is, every one of these commitments directly benefits everyday Tasmanians, right across the state, and we make no apologies for that. 

“In relation to the specific election commitments raised by the ABC, they include funding for soup vans to help feed our most vulnerable and improving disability access at businesses. We would challenge anyone who claims these investments benefit candidates and not the community.”

Mr Street and Ms Alexander did not provide separate responses. 

Written by Alexandra Humphries. Originally published on the ABC on Monday 18 July 2022.