February 16, 2021

This MPI today is about safety and crime prevention. I'm going to begin by asking people to imagine a young police detective, maybe on a drug squad in a big city. Let's say, for argument's sake, that it's Brisbane. He spends every day making the community safer. He's making a drug—

A government member interjecting—

Mr CONROY:  I'll get to you. He makes a drug bust. When he makes a drug bust, the assets are confiscated—the vile assets derived from the misery inflicted on victims and their families. The assets that are confiscated are then used for law enforcement, drug treatment and crime prevention. These funds are designed to prevent further misery being inflicted on families and to prevent more families being destroyed. If you're this young police detective, maybe from Brisbane, how would you feel if you heard about a minister in Canberra cutting funding to deserving projects and using those cuts to fund projects that his own independent experts score at less than 50 per cent? His own independent experts say aren't eligible for funding. Maybe you would ask why this minister was making the community less safe than it could be. I do wonder what a young Detective Dutton would think about a disgraced Minister Dutton of Home Affairs.

That's what we're debating today. There's a lot of heat and light in this debate, so let's go to some facts. This is a $17.9 million dollar program to make communities safer. The department and independent crime experts ranked the applications and recommended the top 70 be approved. What happened? The minister rejected those recommendations and slashed $5.6 million from the best projects to fund an additional 55 projects. Where were the applications cut? Three-quarters of the projects that were cut were in Labor seats or safe coalition seats. I do wonder how the members opposite feel about the inflicting of these cuts—the member for New England, for example, who saw a halving of the program funding for Inverell. That is the state of these cuts.

Who were the beneficiaries of the minister's remarkable intervention? There were two projects worth $200,000 announced during the Braddon by-election. These two projects, which we heard about during question time, were announced before the guidelines were even written and before applications were open. Imagine being one of the lucky councils down in Braddon, being given money they hadn't even applied for! That's a good trick. I'd love someone to teach it to me. These are two projects that the department subsequently made clear to the minister were unsuitable and ineligible. Unsuitable and ineligible! The two projects did not meet the guideline requirements of having scored above 50 per cent in all three merit criteria. The guidelines make it very clear that, if a project fails the 50 per cent test, it is ineligible for funding. Again, the Prime Minister was being very murky today when he claimed that the guidelines were being followed, because the guidelines are very clear: if a project scores below 50 per cent it is ineligible.

That's what the Minister for Home Affairs did. The minister who prides himself on being Mr Law-and-Order breached the program guidelines and funded two ineligible projects he announced before the program began, in a vain effort to win the by-election. To rub salt into the wounds of taxpayers, the minister spent $36,000 on a VIP RAAF jet to make the announcement. The official explanation from the minister's office is that he travelled down to Wynyard for a citizenship ceremony.

What lucky new citizens they are to get the minister's message from the minister himself! If I were being mean, I'd say they might reconsider being Australian citizens if that was their first impression of Australian citizenship.

So the story goes from the minister's office: he was down for the citizenship ceremony. He spent 36 grand of taxpayers' money to do it, and he had an hour to spare in Wynyard. A normal person might say: 'I've got an hour between functions. I might go and have a coffee. I might inject $5 into the local Wynyard economy.' But not this minister. This minister decided to inject $200,000 into the local economy through two grants that are clearly in breach of the guidelines. What's worse is that the $36,000 RAAF VIP jet flight is equivalent to 20 per cent of the actual worth of the grants. So maybe, if he'd jumped on a Virgin or Qantas flight, he could have given a bit more money to Braddon.

Who were the other beneficiaries of the minister's cuts to the best and most meritorious projects? There were 53 other projects much lower ranked, and, coincidentally, over 50 per cent of the funding went to marginal seats and three-quarters of the funding went to coalition seats despite the coalition holding less than 50 per cent of the seats in parliament at that time. Now the minister, in a vain and very belated attempt to defend his actions, claims he simply cut funding from the 19 projects to spread the money across other deserving projects. That's his public reasoning. That would make some sense and have some semblance of truth to it if he'd just picked the next 53 projects in the rankings from the department. But, no, he didn't do that. He picked and chose all through the list of 210 projects, including literally the last ranked project, No. 210. This minister—let's be very clear—chose much lower ranked projects for pure political advantage. This minister chose lesser projects, projects less worthy, projects that would contribute less to community safety, for petty political advantage. He put his political advantage ahead of community safety, and that's a shameful, shameful act.

The second chapter in this affair is his grant to the National Retail Association, which happened to make a $6,500 donation to the minister. 'Deidre Chambers—what a coincidence!' What does the minister do in the same year he receives a $6,500 donation from the National Retail Association? He instructs his department to design a program specifically to deliver not 100 grants, not 10 grants, but one grant—one grant, coincidentally, to the National Retail Association for almost $1 million. It's a great ROI. I would love that. I would love a grant program that delivered to one person, being me. To layer another level of coincidence on this, one week after the National Retail Association pays $1,500 to have lunch with the minister—and what a lucky lunch that must have been!—the minister then instructs his department to expedite the grant design. There is a dinner where $1,500 is handed over, and a week later, coincidentally, the minister instructs his department to get a hurry on in designing the program. If there was ever a poster child for the need for a national integrity commission, this sorry saga is it. Again, the Prime Minister, first of all, didn't even know what this rort was. He used lines from another rort to try and defend the minister's actions and couldn't answer any questions about whether the ministerial code of conduct was breached.

Just four numbers go to the heart of this entire saga: 80, 71, 50 and 100. Eighty per cent of cuts to the best projects were in safe coalition or Labor seats, 71 per cent of the new lower ranked projects that received funding were in coalition seats, over 50 of the funding went to marginal seats, and 100 per cent of the ineligible projects that were funded were in marginal seats.

We've seen from this government rort after rort after rort. We saw sports rorts, with $500,000 going to Mosman Rowers. We've seen the community development grants, where 75 per cent of funding went to coalition seats. We saw the $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream, which was designed to spend money in the regions but where only 10 per cent of the money went to the regions and the biggest project was $10 million to the North Sydney pool.

Some people listening out there might say: 'This is what all governments do. There's nothing to see here. These are standard operating procedures.' Let's be very clear here: the minister used money derived from human misery—drugs, murder, armed robbery—confiscated by our brave police men and women that was supposed to prevent further crime. He used that money to win votes in marginal seats, and this is the standard this government is setting. As General David Morrison said, 'The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,' and the standard that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs have set is using money derived from the human misery of drugs, crime and prostitution to win votes in marginal seats. This is what this debate is about. They'll try and spin it and say no law was broken, but what about ethics? What about morality? That's what was broken under the program.