Pork barrelling should be banned and grant process overhauled, report for Icac says

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A report commissioned by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption has called for pork barrelling to be prohibited and instead grants should be made strictly on merit after assessments against clear criteria.

The report, by the University of Sydney constitutional law expert Prof Anne Twomey, says a major overhaul of the way government makes grants is needed to ensure they are awarded on merit and are no longer used for pork barrelling in marginal seats.

She argues politicians would be free to advocate for projects in their electorates or to promise broad funding schemes but should not be permitted to promise funding for particular projects during elections.

Twomey will present her report at a forum organised by Icac on Friday.

Related: NSW grants review recommends against making pork-barrelling a criminal offence

As well as hearing about Twomey’s recommendations, a group of experts will explore whether the practice of pork barrelling is lawful and ethical, and whether it could constitute corrupt conduct under the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act.

State and federal governments have been wracked by scandals involving multimillion-dollar grant schemes, which had been directed by the responsible minister towards marginal seats just before elections.

At the federal level, there have been questions over the $660m commuter car park fund, which was allocated to 47 car parks just before the 2019 election, while the auditor general found more than half of the $184m safer communities fund, administered by the new leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, was delivered without a “clear basis for the decision”. These scandals followed the sports rorts affair.

In NSW, allegations of pork barrelling have been raised about several grant schemes, including the $252m stronger communities fund. A parliamentary inquiry found it was a “brazen pork-barrel scheme”, with 95% of the grants going to councils in Coalition-held or marginal electorates.

The former deputy premier John Barilaro used to refer to himself proudly as “Pork Barrel-aro”.

The former premier Gladys Berejiklian was grilled during a recent public inquiry about two multimillion-dollar grants in the seat held by her then secret boyfriend, the Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.

The inquiry heard evidence that Maguire had consistently lobbied for the grants over several years, and that they were ultimately signed off by Berejiklian despite concerns from within the public sector. Berejiklian has denied any wrongdoing.

A review of the NSW government’s grants spend in May undertaken by the Department of Premier and Cabinet recommended against making pork barrelling a criminal offence, instead arguing grants administrators should document when ministers and politicians try to influence the grants process.

But Twomey’s report argues this does not go far enough, and that the practice should be prohibited entirely.

“This is a real opportunity for [premier] Dominic Perrottet. He can come in with a new broom, just as NSW did when it put caps on political expenditure and donations. He could be a trendsetter.

“I think the public mood is tending toward much greater integrity in government,” she said.

“Grants shouldn’t be based on colour-coded spreadsheets. They should be allocated on the basis of need, not whether it’s a marginal seat.”

Geoffrey Watson from the Centre for Public Integrity said he would like to see the term pork barrelling dropped from public discourse.

“It’s not pork barrelling when you are using tens of millions of public money for political ends. It’s actually a misuse of public money and in some circumstances it can be corrupt conduct,” Watson said.

“It can amount to misfeasance in public office if an improper motive,” he said.

Watson said the federal Labor government had introduced a system where ministers were meant to report on when they deviated from recommendations of their department on grant making but the system had fallen into disuse.

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The forum, to be hosted by the Icac chief commissioner, Peter Hall QC, will discuss when pork barrelling is unlawful and the ethical issues surrounding it. It will also look at when it could constitute corrupt conduct.

It will also look at whether ministerial discretionary power in relation to grant funding is at large, or whether it is subject to constraints and conditions by operation of the rule of law and, if so, the circumstances in which constraints or conditions exist or operate.

The panel will be moderated by the journalist and author Kerry O’Brien and will include Twomey, the University of Sydney adjunct professor and former court of appeal judge Joseph Campbell, the Ethics Centre director, Simon Longstaff, the NSW deputy auditor general, Ian Goodwin, and the leader of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy’s public integrity and anti-corruption research program at Griffith University, Prof AJ Brown.

Following the forum, Icac will prepare and issue a report setting out its views on pork barrelling, including whether and how it relates to corrupt conduct.

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