John Barilaro fronts NSW government grants inquiry

“It’s the the democratic process, something I’m very proud of.”

Last month it emerged the majority of the first round of the relief fund was allocated without application forms to Coalition-held electorates and three NSW council areas that suffered more than $300 million in economic damage from last year’s bushfires missed out on funding.

One was the Blue Mountains, which suffered more than $65 million damage and was recently ranked the 12th worst bushfire-affected local government area in the country.

Mr Barilaro said 23 programs in the Blue Mountains, where 114 buildings were destroyed, were not considered for funding because they did not meet the criteria of the fast-tracked fund.

“The projects weren’t ready under the criteria that they had to be able to be completed within six months or started within six months … [with] a million-dollar minimum threshold,” he said.

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He defended the first round of funding for “shovel-ready” projects and said a second tranche of grants was yet to be finalised.

“They will get funding because they still [experienced] moderate to high impact, based on the [number] of dwellings destroyed, not just the economic impact.”

He rejected the assertion councils were not fairly informed about the funding last year and used his opening statement to address allegations of pork barrelling.

“I’m sick to death of the mistruths that [are] spun in relation to this term ‘pork barrel’ and the definition is constantly changing to suit, what I would say, is a cheap narrative,” Mr Barilaro said.

He said he did not like that he was sometimes called “John pork barrel”, but he did not distance himself from it, because he was proud of what that represents: “that I have fought for regional NSW.”

Bushfire relief grants that were allocated included $3.6 million for an engineered coastal seawall in Nambucca, $11 million to build the Macleay Valley Skydiving Adventure Park, and $10 million to upgrade the Tumut paper mill in the Snowy Valleys, owned by multinational corporation Visy.

Upper house Greens MP and chair of the committee David Shoebridge on Monday asked Mr Barilaro how he explained the decision to grant “scarce bushfire funding” to the pulp division of Visy when it was making record profits.

“How do you say to [people], you haven’t got a home, we’re not funding your home, but I’m going to give $10 million of bushfire relief to a hugely profitable multinational?”

Mr Barilaro said the investment was about shoring up jobs for the future after the fires affected 1200 forestry industry jobs at Visy alone.

Monday’s inquiry hearing also heard evidence from the Deputy Premier about his role in the Stronger Communities Fund.

The controversial fund handed out $250 million worth of grants to local councils in mostly Coalition-held electorates in the lead up to the 2019 state election.

While the government maintains the Office of Local Government was ultimately responsible for deciding which councils received grants, former auditor-general Tony Harris described the scheme as “brazen and audacious”.

Mr Barilaro maintained he had no authority to hand out funding but merely gave “feedback”, despite being presented with emails with language stating that he had given his approval for certain projects.

“I’m sorry but as Deputy Premier, I was nobody in this process … we just gave feedback,” he said.

“My signature does not appear on any document that signs off on the funding and the ability to cut a cheque.”

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