The New South Wales government is facing new pork barrel allegations over payments from a tourism fund heavily geared towards coalition-held areas.
Proprietary analysis of around seven in 10 grants from the ‘Refresh and Renew’ scheme went to businesses in coalition constituencies, leading Labor to decry ‘clear bias’ in the funding process.
Never-before-seen documents also reveal that a grant was awarded to a company owned by a director of a tourist board who selected applications for evaluation, despite a warning of a potential conflict of interest.
There is no suggestion that the business owner has done anything wrong.
The government said in February last year it had earmarked $1 million to fund the grant scheme, which gives eligible businesses $10,000 to spruce up their facilities so customers can have a better holiday.
A labor analysis of the locations of successful candidates found that only 32% were in non-government constituencies.
The remaining 68% of the funding went to companies in Liberal and National seats.
This is despite coalition MPs only holding around half of the seats in the NSW lower house.
One of the $10,000 grants went to a business in the central north coast that is owned by one of the trustees of a government board involved in assessing applications.
The application was assessed by other officials from the same NSW Government ‘destination network’ where the business owner was a board member, and chosen from a handful of other applications for consideration for funding.
The application has been brought up for assessment by the Destination NSW tourism agency, which is overseeing the funding process.
An email sent to Labor under an order of parliament shows colleagues at the destination network feared a conflict of interest.
“I have not opened or assessed (the application) given that the owner and likely candidate…is a director of the board and in consideration of a perceived conflict of interest,” an official wrote. in an email in May last year.
“Please let me know how you would prefer me to handle this.”
The email said the colleague’s application was one of 159 that had been received in that particular part of the state.
Only 18 of them succeeded.
“All applications were assessed against the same criteria, with the electorate not being a factor or consideration in any aspect of the assessment or recommendation,” a spokeswoman for Destination NSW said in response to questions from NCA News Wire.
The spokeswoman said the business owner who was part of the local tourist board was not involved in evaluating his own application.
“Once again the NSW Government has been caught treating public funds like its own piggy bank,” said Opposition Leader Chris Minns.
“Thousands of eligible small businesses outside the Coalition electorates missed out on a fair share of grants.”
“Dominic Perrottet must put the community before his political party and his friends.”
Mr Minns called on the government to back a bill to reform the grants process.
Tourism Minister Stuart Ayres, who had the final say in the ‘Refresh and Renew’ assessment process, did not respond to questions about the grants.
On Tuesday, the New South Wales government faced heavy criticism from the state auditor general for its handling of another grant scheme, the Stronger Communities Fund.
Almost all of the $252 million in that fund went to councils holding government seats, the auditor general said.