“It is simply not good enough for those trying to defend the egregious behaviour revealed through the inquiry to say ‘no illegality was identified’ when assessment processes were repeatedly, systematically and systemically perverted,” Hill said.
“Especially so when funding decisions repeatedly resulted in ridiculously partisan outcomes.
“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Dismissing legitimate criticism of the Liberals’ industrial scale rorting of grant programs as ‘politically motivated’ is peak irony.”
The inquiry found the allocation of $4.8 billion under the Urban Congestion Fund was “completely unacceptable”. Of 154 grants, 136 worth $2.7 billion were funnelled to Coalition-held electorates, 26 worth $954 million to Labor-held seats and one each was allocated to a Green-held and independent-held seat.
It also found the Regional Growth Fund, worth $272 million, was “completely rorted” by the Coalition, which received $261 million of the program. The Labor-held seat of Lingiari, which the Coalition believed it could win at the 2022 election, received the other $11 million.
The committee argued there were cases for the use of non-competitive grants, while it also backed the ability of a minister to reject a project proposal from departmental officials.
But it recommended greater transparency around ministerial decisions, including the timely online publication of grant approvals. It called for recommendations to support or reject a grant be attached to all individual projects rather than “pooling” them together.
Submissions supporting a project after the cut-off for appraisal should be blocked from influencing a decision, the committee recommended.
In recent years, ministers have been able to use a catch-all “other factors” criteria to support projects. The committee said this must be tightened, with a clear definition of what these other factors may cover.
It also recommended the Australian National Audit Office re-examine the report of government grants next year.
Coalition members of the committee backed its recommendations but noted the audit office had not found evidence of illegality by ministers of public officials through its investigation.
They also said members of the public service had to take responsibility for some shortcomings in grant allocations, and argued that bureaucrats had to ensure their political superiors understood the policies and guidelines underpinning grant programs.
“The second key observation from the evidence provided to the committee is that ministers had been let down in the advice and support they received from public sector officials on the administration of grants,” the Coalition committee members said.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.