Tasmania’s treasurer will be grilled by a parliamentary committee about how the Liberals funded grants during the 2021 election campaign, with concerns growing over “pork-barrelling” allegations and a lack of transparency.
- The government has been under increasing scrutiny for months over how it gives out grants at election time
- Parliament’s accounts committee has now launched an inquiry
- Hearings will begin on Monday with Treasurer Michael Ferguson listed as the first witness
The government has been under increasing pressure over the allocation of $15 million in taxpayer funds, including $2.47 million covering 111 projects which did not undergo parliamentary scrutiny.
In one example, a Liberal candidate announced a $100,000 grant for a volleyball club he was involved with.
After a heated debate in parliament this week — including allegations of ministers misleading parliament — a joint-parliamentary committee will examine the issue.
Treasurer Michael Ferguson and Treasury secretary Tony Ferrall will face questioning by the parliamentary accounts committee on Monday.
Committee chair, independent upper house member Ruth Forrest, said the issue had been “on the radar” since the Integrity Commission released a report in the 2018 election, with concerns over a lack of process and public scrutiny.
She said further recent examples had prompted the committee to conduct an inquiry.
“Every community — small community, big community organization — should have an equal opportunity to apply to the government for support to lobby their local member or local candidate if you like,” Ms. Forrest said.
“Not everyone knows a local member, not everyone knows a candidate, so there can be organizations that don’t have a fair and equal access to some of these funds, or potential funds.
“I don’t have a problem, personally, with people [going to the] government to say our club needs this, our club needs that.
“But what is important to follow is a process where they’re assessed against a criteria.”
Following the election last May, former premier Peter Gutwein and senior officials worked quickly to start funding projects under the Local Community Facilities Fund by the end of the financial year.
These projects were not included in any appropriation or budget bill, due to the lack of time.
Instead, governor Barbara Baker was asked to sign off on them under a process for unforeseen expenditure, under the Financial Management Act.
Ms Forrest said this process was not designed for election commitments.
“Those sorts of payments should be limited to costs that are unforeseen and unanticipated, like a natural disaster or some other major matter that comes up that requires funding,” she said.
Some payments do receive scrutiny, but often “after the event”.
After the committee — made up of two independents, two Labor and two Liberal MPs — has completed Monday’s questioning, it will use the evidence to determine the next steps, which could include questioning of other cabinet ministers or department officials, most likely next year.
‘Fail, fail, fail, fail, by this government’
The issue prompted fierce debate on the floor of parliament.
The week started with cabinet minister Nic Street confirming he “incorrectly answered” questions about the Local Communities Facilities Fund during budget estimates in June.
He apologized and said he “would never knowingly mislead parliament”.
Labor attempted to censure Prime Minister Jeremy Rockliff, claiming he also misled parliament, but this was defeated.
Labor leader Rebecca White said the grant processes at both the 2018 and 2021 elections were concerning, citing an earlier Integrity Commission report.
“Decisions about recipients did not meet the following principles: accountability, openness, fairness, or value for money,” she said.
“Fail, fail, fail, fail, by this government and another fail by the Premier right now, who has continued to mislead Tasmanians about the way money was distributed by this government when it came to fulfilling their election promises.
“There was no parliamentary scrutiny through the budget process, which is what the Premier continues to claim. There was no scrutiny through the budget estimates process, which is what the Premier had continued to claim.”
Mr. Ferguson said the laws had been followed at every stage.
“That process is a valid and lawful process under the Financial Management Act,” he said.
“In my role at that time as minister for finance, when debating the supply bill in 2021, I said the Financial Management Act provides flexibility to enable the government to fund election commitments prior to the Appropriation Act being passed.”
The government’s election commitment process has faced criticism from the Center for Public Integrity, describing it as an extreme version of the federal “sports crimes” saga.