By David Crowe, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 3rd August 2021.

Federal funds are being put at risk in schemes handing out more than $10 billion with inadequate checks on ministerial power, according to a new study of programs ranging from job projects to commuter car parks.

At least eight schemes have fallen foul of audits that identify flaws including gaps in checking how the money is spent and, in the case of the $660 million car park program, no merit criteria at all to decide funding.

The Centre for Public Integrity, an independent group led by former judges and anti-corruption experts, said its analysis of the recurring failures proved the need for reforms in Parliament to increase scrutiny of mammoth spending.

“Billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money is being spent through flawed grant programs,” said the chair of the centre, Anthony Whealy, QC.

“Ministers have too much control, departments aren’t following proper processes and pork barrelling is allowed to continue.”

Parliament resumes on Tuesday with Prime Minister Scott Morrison likely to face scrutiny in the first question time since the Auditor-General issued a report into the car park scheme on June 28.

The report revealed that 77 per cent of the projects were in Coalition electorates and Mr Morrison signed off on more than half the funding one day before he called the last election.

The new analysis finds a pattern in similar audits of eight federal programs that have spent more than $5 billion already and could reach more than $10 billion in the years ahead, giving ministers sweeping power to decide grants.

The spending includes $443.3 million for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, $100 million for the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, $10 million for the Supporting Reliable Energy Infrastructure Program, $660 million for Commuter Car Park Projects, $220 million in Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, $5.2 billion for the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, $2 billion in Australian Research Council competitive grants and $2.2 billion in grants from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

The Auditor-General said oversight should be strengthened with the research grants and said the Indigenous strategy spent most of its money through a non-competitive approach.

The Auditor-General was highly critical of decisions by ministers to award large sums to favoured projects, as they did with the sports, car park and Great Barrier Reef programs.

The centre’s briefing paper, to be released on Tuesday, says 100 per cent of Auditor-General audits of grants programs since 2019 have found flaws ranging from minor problems to serious maladministration.

The paper calls for three reforms to prevent waste and corruption in future schemes, starting with applying merit selection criteria and public program guidelines on grants, to be set out in legislation.

It also calls for departments to be required to table documents in Parliament showing how decisions are made at the tender, selection and delivery stages of each scheme.

Its third reform proposal is the creation of a joint standing committee in Parliament to oversee grant administration, allowing MPs from all sides to question officials.

“Public money should be spent in the public interest, not for the political interests of the party in power,” said Mr Whealy, a justice of the Supreme Court of NSW from 2000 to 2012.

“It is high time that checks and balances are put in place, so that ministers are answerable to Parliament in the spending of public money.”

Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher has defended the car park grants, which were made by his predecessor Alan Tudge, on the grounds that they were authorised by law and met an identified need in the community.

“The Morrison government is getting on with delivering infrastructure projects that improve congestion and safety for commuters across Australia,” he said.

But former Victorian Supreme Court judge David Harper, QC, said the program appeared to base decisions on the interests of the government rather than community need.

“On any appropriate definition of corruption, this is an instance of it; and it should be called out as such,” he said last month.

Australian National University professor of political science Keith Dowding said the car park scheme was “clearly a form of pork barrel malfeasance” although it was not a new problem.

“The current government is mired in such scandals and it seems to be the result of their going all-out to win the last election through directing public money where it would benefit them the most electorally,” he said.

“If there is new territory in this political malfeasance, it was that all-out effort at winning a specific election.”

The Centre for Public Integrity includes former Queensland Court of Appeal president Tony Fitzgerald, former Victorian Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles, University of Melbourne professor Joo Cheong Tham and former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, Geoffrey Watson.

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