Coalition dished out $636m in grants in six months before 2019 election

Christopher Knaus and Sarah Martin
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The federal government awarded more than $630m worth of grants in the six months before last year’s election, and compelled recipients to invite politicians to their public announcements.

Analysis of grant data, audit reports and public announcements for six programs shows the government approved $636.7m in grants for sports, community safety and rural development between December 2018 and the May 2019 election.

Five of the programs – the Building Better Regions fund, Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream programs, Community Sport Infrastructure program, Safer Communities fund and Community Development grants – gave ministers the discretion to decide where the money would go.

The sixth, the Stronger Communities program, left funding decisions in the hands of a “program delegate”, who acted on advice from committees including the relevant local MP.

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Guidelines for five of the six programs decreed that recipients “must notify us of events relating to your project and provide an opportunity for the minister or their representative to attend”.

Building Better Regions fund – $201.8m

The Building Better Regions Fund will dish out $841.6m over its lifetime in grants for projects that aim to promote jobs and economic growth in regional communities. Projects must either support the construction of infrastructure or fund “community development activities” in areas outside the capital cities.

Analysis of data from the government’s online grant reporting system shows it awarded about $201.8m in grants in the lead-up to the election, between December 2018 and May 2019.

The Building Better Regions Fund has faced significant criticism for its distribution of funds to crucial Coalition electorates. The Age and Sydney Morning Herald last week reported that 156 of the 166 grants announced two months before the election went to seats the Coalition held or was targeting.

It was reported grants were targeted at the critical electorates of Indi and Corangamite.

That prompted shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King to refer the matter to the auditor general.

“Regional communities call Building Better Regions a lottery – little did they know Scott Morrison and Michael McCormack loaded the dice against them,” she said.

Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program – $150m

The Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program hit the headlines last week, when the Guardian and ABC revealed it had handed out $150m for female change rooms and swimming pool upgrades in controversial circumstances during the election campaign.

The scheme had no published guidelines, was not open to applications, and grants were simply handed out according to election commitments.

It was announced two months before the election and all the money was exhausted by the time the campaign was over. Funded projects were predominantly in Coalition-held seats, and the largest single grant was $25m for the new Ellenbrook pool in the attorney general Christian Porter’s marginal seat of Pearce.

Community Sport Infrastructure program – $100m

The program that has caused the Coalition the most headaches is the $100m Community Sport Infrastructure program. The program was the subject of a scathing auditor-general’s report finding it had been highly politicised and used to fund projects in key seats targeted by the Coalition.

Repeated revelations showed how grants were funnelled to groups linked to Coalition MPs and wealthy and exclusive sports clubs, while deserving applicants missed out entirely.

The criticism eventually led to the resignation of Bridget McKenzie from the ministry. The Senate voted last week to set up an inquiry into the program, ensuring it will face a fresh round of scrutiny in coming months.

Stronger Communities program – $2.3m

The Stronger Communities Program is a recurring grant scheme that hands $150,000 to each of Australia’s 151 federal electorates for the loosely-defined goal of “delivering social benefits”.

The scheme’s fifth round was to hand out $22.65m to fund small capital projects. Applicants are identified by local MPs and invited to submit an application, which are then considered through a closed, non-competitive process. A maximum of 20 projects are funded in each electorate.

Funds have been provided for a wide range of items, including lawnmowers, barbecues and iPads.

An analysis of grant electorate data suggests about $2.3m was handed out between December 2018 and the May election.

The scheme has led to some controversy. Video emerged last week showing a member of Scott Morrison’s electorate staff being lauded for helping Cronulla Sailing Club win an $8,400 grant, before she urged members to vote for the Liberal party.

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Safer Communities fund – $30.8m

The Safer Communities Fund is a long-running grant scheme administered by the home affairs department, at the discretion of home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

It funds security measures for local community groups, traders associations, religious bodies and others. Analysis of grant data shows it handed out $30.8m between December 2018 and the May election as part of the third round of the program.

The Guardian examined the grants for evidence they favoured Coalition seats, but the results were inconclusive. Many of the recipients were large organisations or councils that operated across multiple electorates.