Expose the blatant mismanagement and cronyism of the WestInvest Program

Today in Parliament Abigail passed a motion to enable the recovery and review of all of the documents and correspondence handled by the previous Government relating to the WestInvest sham.

Abigail moved:

(1) That, under Standing Order 52, there be laid upon the table of the House within 21 days of the date of passing of this resolution the following documents, created before 26 March 2023, in electronic format if possible, in the possession, custody or control of the Premier, the Premier's Department, The Cabinet Office, the Treasurer or Treasury relating to the WestInvest program:

  • all documents relating to the eligibility criteria or official guidelines for each round of the program;
  • all documents concerning the assessment and approval process for determining funding allocations, including:
    • any record which discloses who was responsible for final approval;
    • all probity plans, probity advice and probity reports; and
    • all documents relating to the program alignment panel and steering committee processes.
  • all documents relating to the engagement of members of Parliament and feedback provided by members of Parliament, as a part of the application, assessment and approval process;
  • all briefings to Ministers and department executives on the design of the program, including Cabinet submissions and supporting documents;
  • all agendas and minutes from meetings between Ministers or the Premier and heads of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Treasury, or Infrastructure NSW;
  • all communications relating to the origin and design of the program which contains information not documented in briefings, or meeting agendas or minutes, as identified in paragraphs (d) or (e) of this resolution;
  • all material used for consultation with potential applicants;
  • all applications submitted in each round;
  • all documents relating to approved or rejected applications or projects;
  • all documents concerning conflict of interest declarations; and
  • any legal or other advice regarding the scope or validity of this order of the House created as a result of this order of the House.

Abigail said: 

The WestInvest Program stank from the moment it was introduced. As members may recall, this was the pot of public money from the WestConnex sale that was to be simultaneously put into two places and was announced with a slick ad before there were any details of what it was or how it would operate. It is no surprise then that we now have the Auditor‑General telling us that effectively the operation of the WestInvest Program was deeply flawed. The Audit Office of NSW released its performance audit entitled Design and Administration of the WestInvest program on 28 February this year. It is a gripping read. If members have not had a chance to read it yet, a key finding is that the design of the WestInvest Program "was not informed by robust research or analysis" to support the best use of a funding commitment of this scale.

The program was initially presented as a COVID-related stimulus measure, but no business case or other economic analysis was conducted to support it. Despite then Treasurer Perrottet saying at the time that the package had been in development for six months ahead of its announcement in September 2021, the Audit Office report confirms what was evident from our Public Accountability Committee [PAC] hearing on this issue on 23 September 2021, namely, that Treasury's input was sought only during the week prior to the announcement of the program.

Anyone who was watching that PAC hearing will remember the questions we asked and the difficulties we had in trying to get this information out. The poor Treasury officials seemed to not want to tell us that they had no idea about this program until shortly beforehand, but it became patently obvious that was the case and it has now been confirmed. According to the Auditor-General's report, there was no internal documentation as to why only certain local government areas were selected as eligible for funding from WestInvest. There was no documented rationale for the objectives and focus areas of the program. In a media release at the time I called it a "thought bubble" and it appears I was spot on.

The second major finding from the report was, "Many projects that had no clear link to the purpose of the program were allocated funding." The Auditor-General found that advice from the WestInvest Steering Committee about the eligibility and merits of the projects in the New South Wales government projects round was not followed consistently by the then Treasurer, and justifications for the Treasurer's decisions were not documented. From the report, it appears that then Treasurer Matt Kean was pretty much making up things as he went along—changing guidelines, approving projects that would normally be funded through the annual budget process. But discredit where discredit is due, the new Labor Government apparently was not getting business cases for many of the projects that it redirected the WestInvest money towards, in breach of New South Wales government rules.

Reading the Auditor-General's report would not have been an enjoyable experience for Matt Kean. I am aware that he has written to the Auditor-General contesting the findings, so let us find out what is sitting behind the Auditor-General's concerns and get all the relevant documents on the table to clear this up. I have spoken to many people over the past couple of years who applied for WestInvest funding for incredibly worthy and necessary projects but were refused, only to find out that a relatively wealthy organisation up the road had been hugely fortunate in the allocation that was given to them. That anecdotal inequitable distribution of WestInvest funding is backed up by the Auditor-General in her report, who pointed out that the process favoured applicants with greater resources and experience in preparing grant applications and found that there was also a significant imbalance in the distribution of funding between eligible local government areas.

This House has a lot of experience looking into grants programs and assessing them for political interference. My former colleague, now Senator, David Shoebridge was instrumental in highlighting the blatant pork-barrelling that took place under the former Coalition Government. If Coalition members think that just because they are now in opposition they can escape scrutiny for the grants programs they presided over in the last term of Parliament, they are much mistaken. The Auditor-General has produced an absolutely scathing report, highlighting matters of such importance that I believe the House has no choice but to use its powers to fully investigate the matter. I commend the motion to the House.

Abigail's call for papers was successfully passed, after some amendments. 

Read the full debate in Hansard here.

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