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Scathing audit of $1.15bn regional fund finds grants favoured Coalition seats

Josh Butler

Josh Butler

The national audit office has published a scathing report on the Coalition’s handling of the $1.15bn Building Better Regions Fund, saying Nationals electorates were awarded far more money than they would have been under a merit-based process while Liberal seats got twice as many grants as Labor seats.

The Australian National Audit Office’s latest report, released Thursday afternoon, said that compared with Labor, Liberal seats “received twice as many grants per electorate” under the regional grants program – between $1.6m and $3.1m more.

Nearly two-thirds of projects funded were not those assessed by the department as the most meritorious, with the audit office saying there were a “number of deficiencies” in the program including not enough transparency over the members of the decision-making panel and the amount of discretion members had to fund programs that didn’t meet funding criteria.

The audit office said:

Funding decisions were not appropriately informed by departmental advice, and the basis for the funding decisions has not been appropriately documented.

As the program has progressed through the first five rounds, there has been an increasing disconnect between the assessment results against the published merit criteria and the applications approved for funding under the infrastructure projects stream.

Infrastructure minister Catherine King has been scathing of the program’s handling by the Coalition for some time, last year referring to it as a “taxpayer fund shamelessly hijacked by [then-infrastructure minister] Barnaby Joyce.

We’re expecting a statement from King shortly.

Key events

That’s it for today, thanks for reading

Here are the main stories on Thursday, 28 July:

Enjoy the rest of your evening, we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Paul Karp

Paul Karp

The shadow attorney general, Julian Leeser, has responded to the government’s decision to drop an appeal seeking to restore power to deport Aboriginal non-citizens.
Leeser said:

Attorney general Mark Dreyfus has withdrawn the federal government’s high court appeal in minister for immigration v Montgomery. Mr Dreyfus must explain to the Australian people why he felt the need to intervene when the case had been heard and the high court had reserved its judgement in Montgomery. Does he not trust the high court to interpret the constitution?

After his unprecedented intervention to discontinue the prosecution of Bernard Collaery who was charged with serious national security offences, Mr Dreyfus must explain why he is intervening in yet another case before the courts which could have helped to clarify the operation of Australia’s migration law. Mr Dreyfus has not even been attorney general for 100 days and yet he has interfered in two cases before the courts. How can the first law officer have so little faith in our justice system?

Julian Leeser
The shadow attorney general, Julian Leeser. Photograph: Sam Mooy/AAP

Josh Butler

Josh Butler

New infrastructure minister condemns Coalition running of Building Better Regions Fund

Further to the audit office’s blistering report on the Coalition’s handling of the Building Better Regions Fund, new infrastructure minister Catherine King has promised change in how Labor would manage such grants programs.

In a statement, King called the auditor general’s assessment “scathing”, adding:

It confirms what we already suspected: that the former government actively ignored grant guidelines and, in the process, dudded hard working regional Australians.

Over five rounds of the program, 65% of infrastructure grants went to projects that were not assessed as having the most merit. Former Coalition ministers made decisions on the basis of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ criteria that weren’t fully explained to those applying for grants. They did not keep proper records of decisions.

King claimed the former government had made “decisions to ignore the merit list” of the infrastructure department, which gave major benefits to Nationals-held seats. She said:

Those seats got $104m more – 29% – than if the proper processes had been followed.

King said she was already working on a new strategic regional investment framework, promising decisions which are “evidence-based, coordinated, and transparent” and saying that the government would have “more to say on this in the months ahead”.

Catherine King
Infrastructure minister Catherine King. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

In which Angus Taylor repeatedly calls the new deputy speaker Sharon Claydon “Mr Speaker”:

Angus Taylor gets pulled up by the Deputy Speaker for referring to her as “Mr Speaker”, and then immediately calls her Mr Speaker again — four times. 🤦‍♂️ #auspol #qt pic.twitter.com/0vswezim5B

— Colin Tucker (@colintucker) July 28, 2022

Claydon interjected to say Taylor has called her Mr Speaker on about a dozen occasions. She said:

I was loathe to interrupt you, but you have called me Mr Speaker on at least a dozen occasions. My title is deputy speaker. I don’t need a Mr, a Mrs, a Madam, it’s just deputy speaker.

Taylor agrees that he “will go with deputy speaker”, thanks Claydon, makes a joke about how she would have made a great speaker, and then promptly continues speaking with: “But, Mr Speaker”. He then calls her Mr Speaker three more times.

Once Taylor took his seat, Claydon remarked:

You’re just going to have to dump the Mr Speaker when I’m in the chair, OK?

Man accused of planning foreign interference to stand trial

This report on the committal hearing of a Chinese community leader is just in from AAP:

A Chinese community leader accused of planning foreign interference has been committed to stand trial in Victoria’s County Court.

Prosecutors allege Di Sanh Duong, 67, made a $37,000 donation to the Royal Melbourne hospital in 2020 as a way to interfere with former federal minister Alan Tudge on behalf of the Chinese Communist party.

His defence argued the donation was merely a way for the Chinese Australian community to show they cared during the COVID-19 pandemic in light of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations president Sunny Duong speaks to media in 2020.
Di Sanh Duong has formally pleaded not guilty to a charge of intentionally engaging in conduct with the intention of preparing for, or planning, foreign interference. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

But Melbourne magistrate Susan Wakeling on Thursday found there was sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial in the County Court.

Duong formally pleaded not guilty to a charge of intentionally engaging in conduct with the intention of preparing for, or planning, foreign interference.

Duong was charged in November 2020 following a joint investigation between the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

The 67-year-old, who was the Liberal candidate for the seat of Richmond in the 1996 Victorian election, is the first person charged under Australia’s foreign interference laws.

Duong resigned from the Liberal Party following the charges.

The 67-year-old’s bail was extended to August 25 when he will appear at the County Court for a directions hearing.

As part of his bail conditions, Duong is not allowed to leave Australia or contact a consulate, embassy, foreign intelligence agency or an elected official.

Pocock criticises Manly jersey decision

Independent senator David Pocock has criticised the “devastating” decision of seven Manly players to boycott wearing their club’s pride-themed jersey, AAP reports.

The former Wallabies captain acknowledged the Sea Eagles were taking a step forward by wearing the jersey in their NRL match against Sydney Roosters on Thursday night, but said the boycott highlighted how far society still has to move on inclusivity.

“Sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive,” Pocock told the Conversation.

“We’ve seen that through history when sport has been courageous … we can actually create a space that is more inclusive, that people can come and be who they are regardless of the colour of their skin or their sexuality.

“This is not doing that. [It’s] really disappointing and it’s going to be devastating for a number of probably mostly young people and some older people who are gay, and love their rugby league, to see players take this sort of stand.

“We’re dealing with real people here.”

Senator David Pocock speaks during Question Time at Parliament House on July 28, 2022 in Canberra.
‘Clearly we’ve got a long way to go in breaking down those prejudices and the homophobia that is in society,’ David Pocock says. Photograph: Martin Ollman/Getty Images

Pocock, who played for the Wallabies 78 times between 2008 and 2019, said the fact that LGBTQI+ sportsmen remained uncomfortable about addressing their sexuality across Australia’s major football codes showed society had failed those people.

“Statistically you look at all of the contact sport codes in Australia, I don’t know of any openly gay players, but statistically they are there,” he said.

“Clearly we’ve got a long way to go in breaking down those prejudices and the homophobia that is in society.

“It shouldn’t be up to gay players to put themselves out there and try and push for a more inclusive society, it’s on all of us.

“It’s on the sports, it’s on the teams to create environments where people can be themselves.”

Paid domestic violence leave for casuals ‘sets precedent’, employer groups warn

Paul Karp

Paul Karp

Earlier today, the workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, introduced a bill to create 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave, including for 2.6m casuals.

Employer groups have warned the bill goes further than the proposal of the Fair Work Commission to add paid leave to modern awards.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, Andrew McKellar, told Guardian Australia the inclusion of casuals is “the one aspect I would express caution on”. McKellar said the legislation should “codify what the commission granted”, warning that giving leave rights to casuals was “breaking new ground” and “sets a precedent”.

The Australian Industry Group chief executive, Innes Willox, warned it was a “significant departure” from what FWC had proposed. He noted the commission proposed workers be paid at their base rate of pay – but Labor’s bill pays them according to their normal working pattern (including overtime, shifts penalties etc).
Willox said:

This bill will be much more costly for employers than the approach proposed by the Commission and there are significant questions about how the rate of pay that must be provided to an employee could even be calculated in practice.

The reason this is significant is that shadow workplace relations minister, Michaelia Cash, said she supports the FWC model. The Coalition hasn’t determined its final position, but the fact Labor has departed from the FWC model, and employer opposition gives them a pathway to oppose it.

Still, Labor can pass the bill with the Greens and David Pocock or Jacqui Lambie.

Scathing audit of $1.15bn regional fund finds grants favoured Coalition seats

Josh Butler

Josh Butler

The national audit office has published a scathing report on the Coalition’s handling of the $1.15bn Building Better Regions Fund, saying Nationals electorates were awarded far more money than they would have been under a merit-based process while Liberal seats got twice as many grants as Labor seats.

The Australian National Audit Office’s latest report, released Thursday afternoon, said that compared with Labor, Liberal seats “received twice as many grants per electorate” under the regional grants program – between $1.6m and $3.1m more.

Nearly two-thirds of projects funded were not those assessed by the department as the most meritorious, with the audit office saying there were a “number of deficiencies” in the program including not enough transparency over the members of the decision-making panel and the amount of discretion members had to fund programs that didn’t meet funding criteria.

The audit office said:

Funding decisions were not appropriately informed by departmental advice, and the basis for the funding decisions has not been appropriately documented.

As the program has progressed through the first five rounds, there has been an increasing disconnect between the assessment results against the published merit criteria and the applications approved for funding under the infrastructure projects stream.

Infrastructure minister Catherine King has been scathing of the program’s handling by the Coalition for some time, last year referring to it as a “taxpayer fund shamelessly hijacked by [then-infrastructure minister] Barnaby Joyce.

We’re expecting a statement from King shortly.

‘It should never happen again’: report excoriates ‘secret’ federal criminal prosecution

Christopher Knaus

Christopher Knaus

We just mentioned that attorney general Mark Dreyfus has announced a review of the laws governing the way sensitive national security information is dealt with in Australia.

He did that following a report by the independent watchdog of national security information laws, tabled on Thursday.

The report examined the use of the laws in a case that shocked lawyers and human rights experts in 2019, the prosecution of a former intelligence officer known as Witness J, or Alan Johns.

His prosecution and imprisonment were conducted in near total secrecy.

The fact that he was imprisoned was only revealed publicly almost by accident, through civil proceedings he brought against the Australian Capital Territory jail where he had been detained.

The secrecy was enforced through the National Security Information Act, which has also been used in the cases of Bernard Collaery, Witness K and David McBride.

The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor’s final report made a series of recommendations to overhaul the NSI Act. It found:

Alan Johns shows how s 22 [of the NSI Act] can be used to conduct a federal criminal prosecution in ‘secret’ from start to finish and to maintain this secrecy, seemingly, indefinitely. This should not have happened in Alan Johns and it should never happen again.

The report identified four aspects of the case that were unusual and one which was “unprecedented”. The unprecedented aspect of the case, the report found, was that no sentencing remarks were ever released publicly.

Remarkably, the report found there was nothing stopping the “vast majority” of the sentencing remarks from being published.

In 2019, the then watchdog of national security laws, James Renwick, said the secrecy around the Alan Johns prosecution was unprecedented and ought never be repeated. He said:

As far as we know there has never been another case, at least in peacetime in Australia, where all of it has been conducted in secret. That is something significant and different, and for my part, I would not like to see it repeated.

Renwick initiated the inquiry in 2020.

Hope you’re all hungry, looks like the audit office may have just cracked open a few more barrels of pork.

the audit office has published a scathing report on Coalition’s handling of the Building Better Regions Fund – Nationals electorates awarded far more $ than they would have under a merit-based process, Liberal electorates got twice as many grants as Labor https://t.co/IGWOq7xuAc pic.twitter.com/dfmI259jiM

— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) July 28, 2022

There’s been a lot of inflation chatter about today, and this piece sums it all up nicely:

Just a reminder that we have answered plenty of questions about parliament (including some you may have been too embarrassed to ask) right over here:

Dreyfus requests review of laws that led to Collaery, Witness J prosecutions

The attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has asked the National Security Legislation Monitor to review the National Security Information Act, which has been used in the recent prosecutions of Bernard Collaery and Witness J.

The monitor, Grant Donaldson SC, recently completed a report on the application of the act in the case of Witness J, who also goes by the pseudonym Alan Johns. The report was tabled in parliament on Thursday.

The government is considering its response to the recommendations of that report.

But Dreyfus said in a statement that he would be requesting the entire act be reviewed by Donaldson. He said:

Today I asked the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM), Grant Donaldson SC, to conduct a review into the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004 (NSI Act).

This reference responds to the INSLM’s report of the NSI’s application in the ‘Alan Johns’ matter, tabled today in Parliament.

The whole of the NSI Act will now be referred to the INSLM for review. This is supported by Mr Donaldson who agrees that a review of the Act is beneficial.

The review will consider how the Commonwealth can better balance the vital importance of open justice with the essential need to protect national security.

I appreciate Mr Donaldson’s valuable work providing independent oversight of Australia’s national security legislation.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the appropriate laws are in place to ensure the proper administration of justice and protect national security information.

Labor drops controversial high court case

Paul Karp

Paul Karp

The Albanese government is dropping a controversial high court case that sought to restore the commonwealth’s power to deport Aboriginal non-citizens.

The decision by the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, will guarantee that a dozen Aboriginal non-citizens at risk of deportation will be able to stay in Australia. Dreyfus’s decision also quashes the former Coalition government’s attempt to overturn the landmark precedent of Love and Thoms.

In February 2020, the high court ruled that Aboriginal people cannot be aliens, putting them beyond the reach of the immigration minister’s powers to detain and deport non-citizens.

The full story is here:

There she goes, Amy Remeikis everyone! How does she do it?!

Amy Remeikis

Amy Remeikis

The first week of the first sitting is almost over – but there will be plenty more coming next week.

Nino Bucci is going to guide you through the rest of the afternoon while I work on a quick review of the week (you can catch that tomorrow) so stay tuned – Nino will make sure you don’t miss anything.

Mike Bowers is still out and about and the Guardian team led by Katharine Murphy – Paul Karp, Josh Butler and Tory Shepherd are still all madly beavering away.

I’ll be back on the blog early Monday morning – until then, take care of you.





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