NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro says what others call “pork barrelling” is actually an investment in the regions, as he defended a number of controversial government grant programs.
Mr Barilaro on Monday fronted the NSW parliament’s public accountability committee, which is looking into the integrity of those grant programs.
The inquiry reopened for submissions last week after revelations that most of a $177 million bushfire relief fund has been doled out to projects in Coalition-held electorates.
The Labor-held seat of the Blue Mountains and other electorates held by the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party have so far missed out.
Greens MP and committee chair David Shoebridge said in a statement he was concerned the fund was another “pork-barrelling scheme”.
Mr Barilaro argued on Monday there was still another $250 million to be allocated under the program, which is jointly funded by the federal and state governments.
He said areas that were hit hard by the fires would receive priority under the next round of funding.
Criteria for the first round of funding were available to everyone and were focused on fixing buildings that were destroyed, Mr Barilaro said.
He added that 90 per cent of buildings damaged in the bushfires were in Coalition seats.
In a letter to the committee, Mr Barilaro said he felt a sense of “utter disgust” that bushfire recovery had been politicised.
“You would never mark a student’s work 25 minutes into an hour-long exam, so how can you jump to conclusions when only 40 per cent of [grant] funding has been allocated,” he wrote.
Mr Barilaro conceded he had sometimes been called the derogatory nickname “Pork Barilaro”.
“It’s a name that I’ve never distanced myself from because I’m actually proud of … what it represents,” he told the committee.
“What we call pork barrelling is investment.”
“The definition [of pork barrelling] is constantly changing to suit what I would call a cheap narrative.
“I dare you to turn up to these communities and tell them why they don’t deserve these projects,” he said.
The committee hearing became fiery as Mr Barilaro was quizzed on the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund.
In November, Premier Gladys Berejiklian conceded that $140 million in grants to councils approved from the fund in the lead-up to the last election was pork barrelling.
“It’s an accusation I will wear … It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately it does happen from time to time by every government,” she said.
Mr Barilaro denied he was behind decisions on which regional local councils should get $60 million of that fund.
His staffer sent emails to the Office of Local Government saying the deputy premier “approved” projects under the scheme. At one stage, the office requested written confirmation that he had approved projects for its “audit records”, the committee has heard.
But Mr Barilaro said he never signed anything and it was the Office of Local Government that administered the fund.
Mr Barilaro said the email from the Office of Local Government about its audit records came at the end of the process when projects had already been approved and funding agreements were being discussed.
“You’re just saying black is white and war is peace. Your office approved the process,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“No, they did not, I’m sorry,” Mr Barilaro said.
Mr Barilaro conceded that the inquiry had highlighted problems with the NSW government’s processes and record-keeping. He said he would be looking for the committee’s report to see how those processes could be strengthened.