LGBTQI groups fear they will have to ‘cosy up’ to local MPs to get invitation-only grants

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Community groups have raised concern about a government change to the volunteer grants program that requires MPs to “invite” applications.

Volunteer groups working with the LGBTQI community are particularly worried, warning they could be discriminated against by their local federal MP if they do not support their work.

The change was announced in December, ending a decade-long process that allowed volunteer groups to apply independently to the social services department for a slice of the annual $10m grant fund.

The new process, which comes as the government reels from the so-called sports rorts affair, requires an organisation to be “invited to apply” by the local federal MP, after which it must complete an expression of interest form.

Each electorate has $66,000 under the program, which provides grants of between $1,000 and $5,000 to help community organisations support volunteers. The funds are allocated for equipment or to reimburse volunteers’ fuel, transport or training costs.

After the expression of interest process, those chosen will be considered through a closed non-competitive selection process. Applications will be assessed by the government’s community grants hub.

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Concerned volunteer groups have contacted Guardian Australia saying they resent having to “cosy up” to the local MP to be considered.

Volunteering Australia’s chief executive, Adrienne Picone, said some volunteer groups had raised concerns with it about the new process but it was taking a “monitor and watch” approach.

“Our understanding is the grants are significantly oversubscribed and what the department is trying to do is to put something in place to be able to effectively administer the grants,” Picone said.

“I think what is motivating the Department of Social Services is the assumption that the local member knows their constituents and their communities … but how that pans out is something we really need to monitor and watch.

“We were not consulted and that was a concern for us at the time, but if any organisation feels that they have been discriminated against, or they think the process is inequitable, then we would really like to hear from them.”

The LGBTQI community’s concern is listed as a “frequently asked question” to the department about the change in process, which was added late to the list in January.

In response, the department said MPs would be able to nominate organisations to “support a diverse range of priorities”.

“When nominating organisations, MPs will take account of local need and program objectives: to help community organisations to support the efforts of Australia’s volunteers; to help community organisations to support the inclusion of vulnerable people through volunteering; to encourage, support and increase participation in volunteering,” it said.

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The department said it had recommended the changes to the grant application process.

“The approach addresses the principle of proportionality under the commonwealth grant rules and guidelines and recognises that MPs are well placed to identify local needs and priorities in consultation with local communities,” it said.

“MPs must declare any conflicts of interest and follow the assessment guidelines as outlined in the grant opportunity guidelines. This ensures the process is fair, open, free of political bias and demonstrates the highest level of integrity, consistent with the public interest.

“The department will assess each application and make the final decision on successful applicants.”

It said that since mid-December, it had emailed hundreds of previous applicants advising them of the changes.

Information sent to potential applicants says the program has been heavily over-subscribed in recent years, with about 70% of applicants unsuccessful, “despite the vast majority of applicants being eligible and worthy of receiving a grant”.

Over the past decade, the amount available under the volunteer grants program has shrunk, reducing from $21m in 2010 to $16m in 2011-13, and $10m a year since 2016.