Former staffers for Gladys Berejiklian, her deputy John Barilaro and former minister Gabrielle Upton have sought to deflect blame from their bosses for a grants scheme the NSW Premier admits was pork barrelling.
The staffers were giving evidence at a NSW upper house probe into the Stronger Communities Grant Fund, which handed $252 million to councils in Coalition-held electorates ahead of the 2019 election.
They described a process of recommending millions of dollars in grants that involved almost no paperwork in their offices.
Mr Barilaro’s former deputy chief of staff, Laura Clarke, said she understood that grants under the scheme were approved by the Office of Local Government, not politicians.
She was shown several emails she sent the agency’s chief executive, Tim Hurst, saying her boss had “approved” funding for individual councils, but insisted she understood the agency was the real approver, based on conversations with Mr Hurst.
Ms Clarke said she collated funding requests for regional councils by talking to local MPs, who were all Coalition members, and then ran them past Mr Barilaro verbally. She then sent them to Mr Hurst for approval.
In one email, Mr Hurst asked Ms Clarke to “please confirm for our audit records that the Deputy Premier has approved these project allocations”. She replied: “Yes, confirmed, all approved by the DP.”
In another email, she wrote “The DP has approved this.”
The Office of Local Government has denied it was the decision-maker under the scheme.
Ms Clarke said that if Mr Barilaro was signing off on the expenditure she would have expected to have received a brief and have documentation of his decision. There was no paperwork around these proposals apart from her emails, she said.
“I never expected an email sent by myself to the Office of Local Government would be approval of a fund,” she said.
The money in the fund was originally appropriated to the then local government minister Gabrielle Upton.
But after the first two grants, she stopped approving them herself.
Her chief of staff at the time, Kevin Wilde, told the committee he did not know whose idea it was to change the guidelines for eligibility for grants in 2018.
He could not explain why when Ms Upton received a letter from Canterbury Bankstown Council requesting funding, her reply did not tell them that they may be eligible for $252 million in funding under new guidelines.
Mr Wilde agreed that Ms Upton appeared to have signed off on the new guidelines two days after she had already approved a grant under them.
“I can’t think of another example from my time in government of a fund that operated in this manner, but at the same time the Office of Local Government were the agency that had to make sure that the paperwork was up to scratch and fulfilling all the guidelines,” Mr Wilde said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ms Berejiklian’s former policy adviser, Matthew Crocker, told the inquiry the Premier’s office only became involved in the scheme in April 2018 to help implement a cabinet decision.
He said he instructed a policy officer in his office to look for projects in councils that had been subject to merger proposals but had not merged, because they had a reasonable expectation of compensation.
Labor committee members pressed him continually to identify who made the decision on which councils got funded, and how much. He said it was a “question of mathematics”.
The policy officer put together a table of councils with proposed funding splits, which “went through to the premier”, but the final determination on projects was made by the Office of Local Government, he said.
Ms Berejiklian doubled down on her defence of the scheme on Tuesday, after last month saying pork barrelling was “not illegal”.
“Government are there to prioritise. Whether we like it or not, we let governments prioritise, make decisions, put in policies,” she told a business forum.
Ms Berejiklian again refused an invitation to appear before the inquiry on November 20, committee chair David Shoebridge said on Wednesday.
He expressed the committee’s reluctance to bring former staffers before it, but said the politicians’ refusal to appear left them with no choice.