Taxpayers fund $55.6 billion in federal grants over less than four years

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“With billions spent on grants during the pandemic, and billions more planned in this year’s budget, it’s time to review the grant administration process.”

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The new findings follow years of concern over the growing use of grants after criticism from the Productivity Commission and scathing reports from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) on spending on sports facilities, car parks for commuters and other projects promised by Morrison in the last election.

“The audit office has repeatedly revealed problems with the current system and in particular the way ministers make grant decisions,” said Gabrielle Appleby, law professor at the University of New Wales. from South.

“These decisions are not based on expert analysis, the reasons for the decisions are not recorded and there is very little transparency and therefore accountability.

“The system needs a total overhaul.”

However, it is difficult to track trends in government grants, as the federal GrantConnect database only reports data from the start of 2018.

The row over the Integrity Committee has highlighted differing opinions among the Liberals, with Morrison rejecting the idea of ​​a ‘kangaroo court’ but Liberal backbenchers saying there is a need to create the new agency this year, but not in the form Labour wants.

Bennelong MP John Alexander, who is not contesting the upcoming election after 12 years in parliament, called for bipartisan cooperation if party leaders cannot agree on the best model.

“I don’t think it’s the worst thing if it’s claimed to be very weak,” he said of the government’s proposal.

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“Float it and see where it leaks, and while it leaks, fix it. It would be nice if next quarter is when we can start.

The new report, based on research by Catherine Williams at the Center for Public Integrity, recommends that all major grants be subject to independent evaluation, strict criteria and greater transparency on the reasons for each decision. The center is a non-profit think tank, dependent on donations and not tied to any political party.

All grant programs worth less than $100 million — the size of the “sports rorts” program in the last election — would be subject to published merit-based selection criteria as part of the proposed reform.

Programs worth more than $100 million would be subject to guidelines set out in legislation and approved by Parliament, setting limits for ministers on what they could approve.

The reporting system would require ministers to inform parliament every three months of spending decisions where they have not followed the ministry’s advice. In addition, departments would be required to table documents in Parliament on all grant programs worth more than $100 million.

The Center for Public Integrity is expected to release its findings in the coming days with a call for a national integrity commission as another element to safeguard the use of taxpayer funds.

The new report shows all grants recorded by GrantConnect, including essential federal government work such as state grants for health and education, with no findings on waste or corruption. The purpose of the report was to highlight the money at stake and to argue for further investigation.

The report reveals that $17.5 billion was spent on health subsidies, $9.3 billion on transport and infrastructure, $5.7 billion on social services and $5 billion on the education, skills and employment.

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In a series of criticisms of policy decisions on government grants, the audit office found that “funding decisions were not properly informed by departmental briefings” in the Safer Communities Fund and that reasons for decisions were not properly recorded.

Audit office found applications ‘not properly assessed in accordance with program guidelines’ in regional jobs and investment packages and warned of ‘insufficient review’ of grant proposals $433.4 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

He found that some aspects of the Reliable Energy Infrastructure Support Scheme “did not comply” with Commonwealth grant rules and cautioned against the lack of published guidelines or eligibility criteria or eligibility criteria. Merit in the Suburban Parking Program under the Urban Congestion Fund.

Morrison called the May 21 election last Sunday after a federal budget that included at least $13.8 billion in programs that could fund specific grants during the campaign, separate from road and rail projects in each state.

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But the Productivity Commission called five years ago for tighter scrutiny of transportation subsidies because of “relatively weak” accountability.

“In the absence of a coherent framework for the allocation of grants, the projects made possible by such funding may be particularly subject to the political imperatives of the day, rather than determined either by the performance of roads against assessed needs of consistently, or through consistently developed service standards,” the commission said. .

Warning that decisions were subject to ‘political suasion’ on taxpayers’ funds, the commission called for changes to subsidy rules as part of a broader increase in productivity in its benchmark Move the dial report in 2017, most of which have not been acted upon.

with Angus Thompson

Jacqueline Maley cuts through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, opinion and expert analysis. Sign up for our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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