An inquiry examining state government grants has said it is “concerned” with the timing of grants to the Snowy Valleys Council in the Wagga electorate ahead of the August 2018 by-election.
The Public Accountability Committee, chaired by Greens MLC David Shoebridge, released its first report about the integrity, efficacy and value for money of NSW government grant programs on Tuesday.
In the report, the funds given to the Snowy Valleys LGA are listed as “particular grants of concern.”
“While the most controversial was a grant to Hornsby Shire Council, concerns were also raised about grants for projects in the Snowy Valleys and Central Coast Councils,” the report reads.
The grants in question were announced for Adelong in 2018 as part of the Stronger Communities Fund.
This fund was established by the NSW Government in 2016 to provide newly amalgamated councils with funding to kickstart the delivery of projects, improve local infrastructure, services and support community groups.
The program gave out $252 million in funding to councils before the 2019 state election, and Mr Shoebridge says that more than 95 per cent of this went to councils in Coalition-held seats.
In December last year, the inquiry heard that Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced $255,000 in funding for Adelong projects during the 2018 by-election before any application had been lodged.
The by-election was triggered after former Wagga MP and Liberal Party member Daryl Maguire resigned whilst embroiled in an ICAC inquiry and allegations of corruption.
Snowy Valleys Councillor Julia Ham ran as the candidate for the Liberal Party at that time, however independent Dr Joe McGirr won the seat, breaking the Liberal Party’s 60-year hold on it.
The Adelong grants were announced by the Premier during a visit to the town with Cr Ham and the mayor James Hayes, after earlier visiting Tumut Hospital to allocate $50m for a new facility there.
The inquiry’s report states that the funding was announced by the Premier on August 17, 2018 according to a media release, but was not executed until February 5, 2019.
Laura Clarke, a former Deputy Chief of Staff in the Deputy Premier’s office, appeared before the inquiry and confirmed it was the role of the Deputy Premier to identify projects in the Snowy Valleys Council as it was a regional council.
“However, she could not recall talking to the Premier’s Office about any funding for Snowy Valleys Council,” the report reads.
“Further, Ms Clarke was asked how the grants to Adelong were announced in August 2018 when the funding agreement was not signed until 5 February 2019. Ms Clarke agreed that normally public announcements and media releases are not made until funding has been approved, but said this was a matter for the Office of Local Government.”
The committee also raised this matter with the former NSW Auditor-General, Tony Harris, who “viewed that the Premier must have approved the expenditure before making the statement and executing the agreement.”
The funding awarded to Adelong included $10,000 to upgrade Wi-Fi in the Adelong township; $25,000 to promote tourism in Adelong; $100,000 for Adelong main street facade improvements; $20,000 for QR code/wayfinding interactive signage along the Adelong walking tracks; and $100,000 for equipment for the Adelong adventure playground.
The committee’s report says that it is concerned about the timing of the “overwhelming majority” of grants awarded through the Stronger Communities Fund, and that Snowy Valleys Council are “particularly concerning” because the announcement came six weeks prior to the Wagga by-election.
“This committee was not given a satisfactory explanation of why this was the case,” the report concluded.