December 15, 2021

PAUL TURTON, PRESENTER: Well former Premier Gladys Berejiklian famously said of pork barrelling that it’s not illegal and everybody does it. Well Nine Media has crunched some numbers. Their analysis of the more than 19,000 individual Federal Government grants shows huge discrepancies amongst the nation’s 151 electorates. According to reports in their newspapers today, Coalition-held seats around the country have received more than $1.9 billion over three years in the lead up to the last election, while Labor electorates got just under $530 million. That’s a big difference, isn’t it? What do you attribute that to?

Locally, all of the Labor electorates combined received about half of what was granted to Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England. At the bottom of the list was Pat Conroy’s seat of Shortland with less than $800,000 compared to more than $48 million for the Deputy Prime Minister’s seat. Mr Conroy joins me now. Pat Conroy, good afternoon.


TURTON: Now you’d do your own numbers of course, is this Sydney Morning Herald analysis adequate do you think? Does it tell the whole story, and can the numbers be relied on?

CONROY: Well the numbers seem like they can be relied on for these actual grants, but what is interesting is they are being generous to the Government because they haven’t included some of the most egregious rorts out there. So for example, it doesn’t include the sports rorts program which almost all of the grants went to marginal seats the Government wanted to hold or win. It doesn’t include the regional rorts program, and it doesn’t include the Safer Communities Program where the Government used the money from the proceeds of crime – they literally used blood money – and pumped it into marginal seats, especially with projects that weren’t even eligible for funding. So this analysis is accurate for the grants that it goes to, but the problem is far wider than the article suggests.

TURTON: Okay, before we go any further, if we were to look at the three-year period between 2007 and 2010, wouldn’t the story be exactly the same? Labor electorates benefitting by virtue of the Labor Party controlling The Hill in Canberra? 

CONROY: No it wouldn’t, and I will give you an example within Anthony Albanese’s portfolio. He was the Minister for Regional Development and Local Government, and in the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program that he ran, 53 per cent of the funding went to Labor seats, and Labor held 53 per cent of all seats. 

So I am not pretending that there isn’t a natural tilt towards the party that is in government – I am not going to pretend otherwise – but what we are seeing here is industrial scale rorting. This Government makes a virtue of it. In fact, Prime Minister Morrison when asked about it today bragged about it. This Government has done much more of this than any other Government in the history of this nation, and it has to be called out because it’s taxpayers’ money. It’s not the Government’s money, it’s not my money. They are using taxpayers’ money to buy votes on a scale unseen in this country.

TURTON: Is there any other explanation? The quality of the applications by the various community organisations? Is there any other explanation other than political processes?

CONROY: It’s purely political processes because the grants that are under examination are where the MP and the Minister has the discretion. So they often go against the departmental recommendations. They don’t look at need. To give you an example, I’ve got the beautiful community of Windale in my electorate which is a great community with great community spirit, but it is the most disadvantaged community in all of New South Wales. I’ve got San Remo and the Northlakes area of the Central Coast which is up there in terms of economic disadvantage as well. So for our community to have the least amount of funding of any of the six Hunter seats is absolutely unacceptable. It’s abhorrent, and what we need is for grants to go to communities and projects based on need and economic disadvantage, not because the MP happens to be the Deputy Prime Minister.

TURTON: What about the advocacy of the various Members? Have you and Jill Hall been negligent in your work? Is it the fact that you don’t - that you can’t knock on a Minister’s door and have a chat like a Member of the Government might be able to do?

CONROY: Well I absolutely reject that. I write letters, I seek meetings, I’ve had meetings with Ministers where I have advocated for particular issues, but ultimately this is not about having a local MP who is a better advocate or not. It’s about a Government choosing to buy votes, and that’s what it is. It’s not the power of persuasion, it’s the power of vote buying, and you just have to look at where the statistics are. 

Is anyone suggesting that David Gillespie is a 12 times more powerful advocate than Meryl Swanson or myself? Or that Barnaby Joyce somehow thinks that there’s $50 million worth of good projects in his electorate but 1/50th of that in the electorate of Paterson or Shortland? This is about industrial scale rorting and corruption. I’ll be frank about that. Some of this is corruption, and that’s why –

TURTON: Well there’s no evidence of that Pat Conroy or there would be charges.

CONROY: Well no, there’s not charges because we lack a National Anti-Corruption Commission. That’s why it’s so important that we have a National Anti-Corruption Commission. Let me give you an example in the Safer Communities Program which uses the proceeds of crime. When the police confiscate drug money or vehicles that are being used in crime and they sell it, they use some of that money to do things like invest in closed circuit cameras and lots of other important things. This Government, the Minister in charge of this program, awarded funding to marginal seats for projects that weren’t even eligible under the Government’s own guidelines. How could a Minister choose to fund a project that his own guidelines said was not eligible? He used blood money. I don’t see how that can be perceived as anything but a corruption of the process involved. And that’s why a National Anti-Corruption Commission is essential, and quite frankly I think that’s why Mr Morrison refuses to implement one, because he knows that he and a lot of his other Ministers will be found wanting.

TURTON: But isn’t the whole problem with the way our laws are drafted which give pretty much unfettered control to Ministers to be able to make those determinations? And in none of the examples you’ve cited have any of these individuals profited personally from the processes, so isn’t the problem with the system rather than the political party that’s in office at the time?

CONROY: Well, I’d make two points. First, there’s legal definitions of corruption, and then there’s views about corruption around ethics. So they might not have personally profited from it, but they’ve politically profited from it using taxpayers’ money in a way that is not reasonable. So I would argue that’s a version of political corruption, and that’s certainly something that a National Anti-Corruption Commission can look at. 

And secondly, there’s a matter of ethics. Like, even if they can legally do it – and some of that is disputed – is it the right thing to do? And the only way we can stop that is by calling it out and opposing it. Some of the issues being canvassed in the ICAC right now around the former Member for Dubbo involved grants to projects where people didn’t personally profit from it, but it was a misuse of taxpayers’ funds. 

And that’s why we do need a National Anti-Corruption Commission because this is a vast misuse of taxpayers’ funds. We’ve been very clear and Anthony Albanese has said today –

TURTON: But you can’t come, you’ve got to go to equity with clean hands, Pat Conroy. The Labor Party has been doing it for as long as the Liberal Party has.

CONROY: Well, hold on. There’s no suggestion that we rorted programs to the extent of 75 per cent of a program going to Government MPs and 25 per cent to the Opposition MPs, or in some programs it was basically 95 per cent to the Government and five per cent to the Opposition. What we’ve seen in the last few years is way above what previous Labor Governments have done and quite frankly way above what the Howard Government did. 

There has to be a stop to this. Just because Governments in the past have made mistakes, doesn’t mean that this Government should get a free pass. I’m not pretending that Governments in the past haven’t steered grants occasionally – I’d be hypocritical if I did that – but this is a different level, and this is a level that is entirely unacceptable to the Australian public, and we –

TURTON: So can you give assurances if the Labor Party is elected at the election which will be held before May next year of course, can you absolutely guarantee that the Labor Party in all cases will follow the ministerial, or rather the departmental guidance in regard to the allocation of funds? Or will Labor Ministers exercise their discretion as the Coalition Ministers have?

CONROY: What we’ve said is three things. One, we would establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission that would really repair this area to a significant extent. Secondly, we would award grants based on integrity, and based on merit, and based on advice of the department. And thirdly, we would implement the recommendations from the Australian National Audit Office. 

I can tell you that if this Government did those three things, most of the problems associated with these grants rorts would not be allowed to occur. So we’ve put forward three concrete ways we will improve the system to make sure that taxpayers’ money goes to where it’s needed most, not where it can buy the most votes. And that’s an important principle that I think most people should support.

TURTON: Pat Conroy, I appreciate you being available this afternoon.

CONROY: Have a great afternoon and a safe Christmas.