A new framework for the administration of government grants is urgently required, according to new research by the Centre for Public Integrity. With over $55 billion in government grants distributed by the Morrison Government, and the Australian National Audit Office finding systemic problems with grant administration, greater scrutiny is vital.
The research recommends a tripartite system of grant administration:
1. Clear criteria:
– merit selection criteria and program guidelines to be published and tabled for grants programs worth less than $100 million.
– Parliament to set out criteria and guidelines in primary legislation for all grants programs worth over $100 million.
2. Robust reporting:
– Ministers to report to the Parliament on a quarterly basis in respect of expenditure decisions which deviate from departmental advice; and
– departments to periodically table documentation pertaining to administration of grants programs worth over $100 million.
3. Augmented accountability:
– a dedicated parliamentary committee;
– improved applicability and enforceability of the existing legislative framework;
– a reassertion of the role of an independent public service to enable it to provide ‘frank and fearless’ advice about the administration of grants programs; and
– a National Integrity Commission, with strong powers and a broad jurisdiction, to investigate serious or systemic breaches.
“Over $55 billion has been awarded in grants under this government. This is public money being spent, at times without any criteria or reporting,” said the Hon Michael Barker QC.
“The Audit office has found problems with all of the grant programs it has looked at. With billions spent in grants through the pandemic, and billions more earmarked in this years’ budget, it is time for an overhaul of the grant administration process,” said Mr Barker.
“Currently there is little or no oversight of grant spending. The grant guidelines do not cover payments made through the states, and the rules in the relevant legislation are not enforced,” said the Hon Anthony Whealy QC.
“We need a new system of grants administration. Grants criteria should be made public, and for programs over $100 million these criteria should go through Parliament. Quarterly reports should be published, and the grant rules should be independently enforced,” said Mr Whealy.
“The Audit Office has revealed – repeatedly –problems with the current system, and particularly the way that Ministers are making grant decisions. These are uninformed by expert analysis, reasons for decisions are not recorded, and there is very little transparency, and therefore accountability,” said Professor Gabrielle Appleby.
The system needs a total overhaul, with processes in place for setting criteria for grants, for independently assessing applications, and for transparency as to the reasons for the final decisions.
The Parliament has the ultimate responsibility for overseeing the proper use of public monies, and it needs these processes in place to ensure it has the information it needs to hold the government to account.”