A $20m federal government program to upgrade showgrounds delivered just $2.2m to 11 Labor-held seats while the Nationals received more than four times as much – $9.2m – for 10 seats.
The regional agricultural show development grant program delivered $3.4m to the agriculture minister, David Littleproud’s seat of Maranoa alone, more than the entire allocation for opposition-held seats.
Labor has labelled the discrepancy in grants “unacceptable” but the agriculture department insists the process was solely determined on recommendations by an independent selection advisory panel.
The program was a Coalition election commitment, which funded 122 agricultural show societies out of 424 applicants which registered from October to December 2019.
Littleproud announced the results of grants on 8 May, boasting they will “help show societies refurbish their show grounds and facilities” which are “a major drawcard for our regional towns”.
A Guardian analysis of the results of grants shows that $9.2m was spent in seats held by Nationals, $6.9m in seats held by the Liberals, $2.2m in Labor-held seats, $1m in minor party and independent seats, and $800,000 on statewide peak bodies or grants that serve multiple electorates.
A total of 33 Coalition-held seats received funding, compared with 11 Labor-held seats. Despite Labor holding just less than one-quarter of the regional seats that received grants, those seats received a little over one-tenth of the funding.
Coalition-held seats received a total of 91 grants, costing an average of $176,260 each. Labor-held seats received 18 grants, costing an average $119,865 each.
Littleproud’s seat of Maranoa received 15 grants totalling $3.4m including to construct new multipurpose facilities at Cooyar ($430,215) and Cunnamulla ($480,000); kitchen upgrades at the Miles showground ($500,000); and to construct a mezzanine floor in the Stanthorpe showground exhibition centre ($480,000).
By contrast, the shadow agriculture minister, Joel Fitzgibbon’s electorate of Hunter received just two grants: $199,944 for lighting upgrades and new cattle shelters at Singleton showground and $120,750 for two new amenities blocks at Muswellbrook showground.
An agriculture department spokesperson said an independent selection advisory panel assessed applications against the selection criteria in the program’s grant opportunity guidelines.
Criteria included the need for the project and its benefits, the impact on the sustainability of the show and capacity to deliver the project.
The department said the panel’s assessment was overseen by an independent probity adviser who concluded the selection process was “consistently applied” and “the process for managing conflicts of interest was satisfactory”.
“The selection panel was chaired by an official from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and included nominees from Agriculture Shows Australia and other representatives with expertise in agricultural shows,” the department said.
The department said the first assistant secretary of the agricultural policy division – the decision-maker for the program – “followed the panel’s recommendation in all cases”.
“The minister for agriculture did not direct the decision-maker in any way.”
Fitzgibbon told Guardian Australia: “The showground grants are not without merit and I was happy my electorate received a couple.
“But the disproportionate number of grants going to LNP seats is typical and unacceptable.”
Guardian Australia contacted Littleproud for comment.
The Coalition’s handling of grants programs has been in the spotlight since a scathing auditor-general’s report the found former sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s office skewed $100m of grants towards marginal or target electorates by running a parallel assessment process to Sport Australia’s recommendations.
Scott Morrison has downplayed his role in the community sport infrastructure grant program, claiming his office instructed McKenzie to seek his authority to announce grants but not to decide recipients.
On Thursday Guardian Australia revealed that just $9m out of a separate $150m fund for swimming pools and female sports facilities have been spent. The projects were chosen as election commitments, without any open application process.