It’s shaping up as the first big rort of the year, and boy is it a whopper.
The Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund was supposed to be a rescue package for NSW communities ravaged by last year’s Black Summer bushfires.
Instead, it’s at the centre of a new pork-barrelling scandal, with allegations funding has been targeted to Coalition-held state seats — including $10 million for a paper mill controlled by one of the Coalition’s biggest donors, Anthony Pratt.
Now another famous billionaire has been drawn into the scandal.
Mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest is having to justify topping up the fund with cash from his multibillion-dollar philanthropy vehicle the Minderoo Foundation.
Minderoo pledged to contribute to the government scheme with an additional 10% funding to recipients of its choosing. It has also promised to help applicants get access to funding with a letter of support.
Now that the scheme is set to be examined by an NSW parliamentary inquiry over pork-barreling claims, is Minderoo putting its pledge on hold?
The foundation told Crikey that it was not involved in decision-making for the fund, and that any cash it gave to recipients would be assessed through an “independent process”.
“We have established our own criteria to determine which projects we will co-invest, in line with [our] fire and flood resilience blueprint national strategy,” a spokesperson said.
The federal and NSW governments made a joint announcement in November that $177 million of the $250 million scheme would be fast-tracked to 71 selected projects. This included a $10 million grant for Pratt’s global recycling juggernaut Visy to upgrade and modernise its paper mill in Tumut.
Pratt is one of the country’s biggest political donors and gave the Coalition $1.5 million last financial year.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who is responsible for overseeing the fund on behalf of the NSW government, rejected claims the fund had been politicised.
“The only people who are politicising the projects are Shoebridge and Labor as they attempt to undermine the good work this government is doing,” a spokesperson for Barilaro told Crikey.
The NSW inquiry follows revelations by journalist Elizabeth Minter that the fast-tracked funding has been heavily skewed towards Coalition-held seats.
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Further analysis by NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, chair of the inquiry, reveals just $2.5 million of the $177 million went to Labor-held seats (Cessnock and Lismore), with no funding going to the Labor-held seat of the Blue Mountains, the site of one of last year’s biggest fires.
Almost a third of the money went to projects in the independently held marginal state seat of Wagga Wagga, which straddles two federal seats — one held by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, and Eden-Monaro, which the government desperately wants to win back.
In addition to the Blue Mountains, no funding went to the Central Coast or Ballina, which were all devastated by fires.
Shoebridge told Crikey the allocation of funding had been “highly politicised”.
“You can’t help but see the deep politics in this. No one even knew the funding was available until the recipients were tapped on the back.”
He also questioned Minderoo’s involvement, saying it was a “highly unusual development”.
“[Forrest] is not a neutral political player here and the question would be what if any impact this billionaire has had on the allocation of critical public funds?”
Minderoo would not say how much funding it would direct to recipients of the scheme but said it had committed $70 million to its fire and flood resilience initiative.
* This article originally stated that two $10 million grants went to Visy. It has been amended to say that one $10 million grant went to Visy after the government clarified information on its project approval list.
This article was first published by Crikey.