Federal Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally has raised the alarm that Scott Morrison will personally decide how to allocate $800m of manufacturing grants.
Labor’s government accountability spokeswoman on Wednesday night warned the Coalition’s modern manufacturing initiative would “bake-in” partisan spending and normalise recommendations that weren’t independent as occurred in the sports rorts controversy.
Keneally used a speech to Deakin University’s accountability and rule of law workshop to renew Labor warnings that the latest budget contained 22 discretionary funds that allowed discretionary or partisan spending.
The speech follows weeks of controversy about the $660m commuter car park fund. The Australian National Audit Office found its 47 project sites were handpicked by the government on the advice of its MPs and candidates.
Keneally on Wednesday raised concerns about the $800m collaboration arm of the modern manufacturing initiative – a $1.5bn fund to boost manufacturing in six key sectors.
Guidelines released by the industry department on 30 June revealed grants of between $20m and $200m would be awarded following recommendations from the department to the industry minister, Christian Porter, but that the prime minister would remain the final decision-maker.
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Applicants are required to address and score at least 50% in each of four assessment criteria, including the benefit to Australia and alignment with the program’s goals.
“The prime minister decides which grants to approve, taking into account the advice of the minister for industry, science and technology, relevant portfolio ministers, the committee, [Industry Innovation Science Australia] and the availability of grant funds,” the rules state.
Keneally said that despite the fact he was not the industry minister, Morrison would get the “final say”, meaning money could be spent “solely” at his discretion.
“This grant is clearly being structured in such a way as to streamline pork-barrelling and proactively stymie scrutiny by attempting to normalise the same process that was so heavily criticised during sports rorts,” she said.
In the case of the $100m sports rorts program, the ANAO found that former sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s office ran a parallel process to select grant recipients, ignoring department recommendations and skewing them towards target and marginal seats.
“What this grant represents is the formal baking-in of the infamous colour-coded spreadsheets – a complete subversion of the Westminster system of ‘ministerial accountability’ and the creation of a new normal where Mr Morrison decides who gets what based solely on his political ambitions,” Keneally said.
“The prime minister will have $800m to spend, all conveniently timed for grants to be announced during the next election campaign.”
Keneally claimed Australia was “experiencing an all-time low for government accountability”, citing the car park scandal, the $100m community sport infrastructure grant program and the building better regions fund.
Keneally accused Morrison of attempting to “normalise misconduct because he believes that it’s a sure-fire way to get re-elected”.
She cited the defence of the commuter car park fund by finance minister Simon Birmingham, when he said that “the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in” after it promised car parks skewed towards 23 marginal and target seats.
“There’s no feigned remorse anymore – they just out and say that this is what they’re doing and there’s nothing wrong with it,” Keneally said.
“At the heart of the Morrison Liberal government is this promise: we will spend taxpayer money like it is Liberal party money because the most important thing is re-election.”
Labor has stopped short of promising it would abolish discretionary grant programs.
Earlier in July, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, promised better processes for identifying grant recipients but did not rule out ministerial intervention.
“Governments make decisions, and of course ministers will make decisions,” he told the National Press Club.
“But it’s based upon a process which is there. We are in a democracy. And governments make decisions. And they’re elected to do so. The problem here is there’s no integrity in the attitude of this government.”
On Wednesday, Keneally suggested accountability would be improved by a federal anti-corruption commission, which would be “a major step to restoring integrity to our democratic system”.
Keneally said the national integrity commission should have the “independence and resources of a standing royal commission” – but the Coalition’s proposed model was “all bark and no bite”.
The Morrison government has consistently denied wrongdoing in the administration of grants programs, including the community sport infrastructure grant program and commuter car park fund.
The urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, told ABC’s 7.30 program on Monday the car park projects “were decided based on need”. McKenzie has claimed that Labor electorates actually benefited from her intervention in the sports grant program.