Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (16:40): This week the residents of the Central Coast learned of a scandal concerning Central Coast Group Training Ltd, which has received two grants of $2.7 million each for nearly identical purposes. The first grant was made in 2013 by Labor with good intention, but commitments given at that time were not fulfilled. What is hard to understand against this background is why a second grant of the same amount was made in 2015 for the same business by the coalition government. All up, this business has received $5.4 million for skill centres in Tuggerah and North Wyong.
This funding was intended to be a pilot program to generate 120 jobs for young people and to act as an incubator to bring small business and youth training together. Instead, according to the Newcastle Herald, the Tuggerah and North Wyong sites are largely empty. As the journalist, Joanne McCarthy, from that paper points out:
The only thing missing is new jobs and apprenticeships for young people.
The Central Coast is an area of high-average youth unemployment, at 17.3 per cent, compared to the national average of around 12. 9 per cent. This project was supposed to help, but it hasn't.
You have to ask why the coalition were willing to hand over nearly $3 million to a jobs incubator that had not proved its worth—that is, until you look deeper into the business. Central Coast Group Training Ltd is a business owned by two former councillors of the Wyong council. At the time of the second grant, both were on the council, one, Doug Eaton, as mayor, and the former Liberal member for Dobell, Karen McNamara, was also once on the board. The tragedy of this grant is that these millions of dollars of public funding have gone to a worthless project for murky and political reasons when there were many other projects that could have been funded.
The Community Development Grants Program can only be described as a National Party slush fund. It's a $1 billion program with few guidelines and no competitive funding processes. The minister's own department has confirmed to a Senate estimates hearing that this program is there to fund coalition election commitments. Funds have largely been committed to projects in coalition seats. This is in direct breach of the Commonwealth grant guidelines for ministers, which say:
The ANAO has put an emphasis on the geographic distribution of grant activities as a measure of equitable
The political manipulation of these grants is scandalous. Between 2013 and 2017, they have committed over $135 million from this fund to National or Liberal Party seats in New South Wales alone. By contrast, Labor seats received a little over $1 million. This is a ratio of 135:1 since 2013. In Queensland, it's the same story: $138 million to coalition seats and a little over $1 million to Labor seats. Then you have a look at the bucks for the boys. The Deputy Prime Minister in New England has had the lion's share, with a total of nearly $17 million. The seats of North Sydney and Wentworth combined had a total of $20 million.
The object of the Community Development Fund is to fund projects to provide for the long-term viability of local communities. Clearly, it's been about the long-term viability of the government and its senior members more than these communities. Given the obvious rorting of this fund, it is no surprise that there's extraordinary secrecy behind the grants process. I wrote to the Australian National Audit Office in May this year to raise questions about the administration of the program. I wrote again after discovering the Central Coast scandals uncovered by the Newcastle Herald and Joanne McCarthy. I have also written to the minister with an FOI request. In an extraordinary admission, we were told that no documents exist.
Some in this place may remember the regional rorts uncovered by the ANAO at the end of the Howard government. It seems that, 10 years later, the Turnbull government is going down exactly the same path. This week the minister responsible for the Community Development Grants Program said her decisions on funding programs are balanced, well thought through and measured, and made on merit. We think not. This is all the more reason why the Prime Minister should ask the Deputy Leader of the National Party, the minister responsible, to step aside. It is no small academic matter. The government has already conceded that the minister is probably not eligible to sit as a senator in the other place. If she's not eligible to sit as a senator, then she's not eligible to sit as a minister. Against the background of maladministration of these funds over many, many years, I again call on the government to do the right thing and ask the minister to step aside.
You can watch my speech by going to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2T46VIkJ-Q