Audit office accuses another federal grant program of favoring coalition seats

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has criticized the management of a federal grant scheme used to improve community safety, saying it favors government-held seats and decisions are often made without clear and recorded justifications .

The $184 million The Safer Communities Fund was established in 2016 to combat crime and anti-social behavior by providing at-risk schools or organizations with money for more security cameras or streetlights.

ANAO found that nearly 60% of all projects funded since 2016 have been in coalition-held constituencies, compared to 27% in Labor constituencies.

“Funding decisions were not properly informed by ministerial briefings and for the majority of decisions, the basis for decisions was not clearly recorded,” the audit report said.

The audit confirmed that current Defense Minister Peter Dutton had approved two separate applications worth almost $200,000 that did not meet the department’s selection criteria, after visiting applicants during from a previous by-election.

In February last year, the ABC 7.30 revealed that Mr Dutton rejected his department’s recommendations on grant funding when he was Home Secretary.

In April 2021, the ANAO launched its audit of the administration of the scheme.

During the Senate Estimates hearings on Monday, ANAO official Brian Boyd confirmed that it was Mr Dutton who approved the funding in the 2018 Braddon by-election.

“The department undertook an exercise after this happened to present options to the minister in terms of: ‘Would you separately enter into an arrangement for these two to receive funding without any competition or should they be invited to apply and to compete against all of the other candidates through a competitive process,” Mr. Boyd said.

“It was then through the evaluation process that they did not emerge as being those evaluated as most meritorious, but they were selected for funding anyway.”

Peter Dutton was appointed minister having approved two grants that did not meet the selection criteria.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

The audit also brought to light a deputy minister’s decision to award $1.3 million to five applicants, despite ministry advice the projects were ineligible for funding after an assessment based on the deserved.

The audit report says the decision was made after the Deputy Minister visited the applicants after the funding round closed.

In the third round of funding allocations, the seats held by the Coalition “represented a higher proportion of approved applications – in numerical and dollar terms – than they represented as [a] proportion of the application population”.

The audit report also revealed that religious organizations received 84% of the funding, although some religious leaders argued that Christian and Jewish organizations were favored.

“A number of submissions received by ANAO from Hindu and Tamil communities have raised issues of accessibility to the funding opportunity, including whether there is ‘favoritism towards European religions or communities'”, indicates the report.

The Hindu Council of Australia told ANAO that “departments have consistently failed to provide grants to Indian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist communities”.

Multicultural Affairs Minister Alex Hawke acknowledged that improvements could be made to processes to ensure that all religious organizations have a fair chance to apply.

“I think there may be unconscious biases in departments on issues related to different religions,” he said.

“I’ve spoken to my secretary about this over the years. We are constantly working to improve and train our officers in better cultural awareness of all faiths.

“The way they work, sometimes they are structurally very different compared to Western religions, and I think we can improve on that.”

Last year, ANAO found that a $660 million fund to build 47 commuter parking lots near train stations was not “merit-based”.

“The distribution of selected projects reflects the geographic and political profile of those given the opportunity by the government to identify candidates for funding,” Auditor General Grant Hehir said.

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