Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News 24, Breakfast

E&OE Transcript


Michael Rowland, Host: Let's bring in the new Infrastructure Minister Catherine King. Good morning.

Catherine King, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government: Morning.

Rowland: What is your reading on this report?

King: Surprised, but not surprised. It is part of the pattern we saw in the last decade with the Liberal National Party Government and this latest audit report into what was in essence, five rounds of a billion-dollar regional program shows 65% of all of the big projects - the infrastructure stream projects, which makes up 98% of the program - was not assessed by the Department as having the most merit. There were some weird things happening as well, I think we saw, particularly in the last round, it looks like the Ministers said, don't give us any recommendations, just let us choose from a pool of funding. So, they just got all of the projects. The other weird thing that they seem to have done is deliberately introduced this thing called other matters. So, there's the four main criteria that everyone put their applications in under. And then they said there was this other thing you could assess grants under which were other matters. And in some weird sort of Kafka play, one of the factors that were counted as other matters, were other matters. So basically, they could choose anything. And that's what they did. And not surprisingly, particularly, in a couple of the rounds, we see that it's really benefited National Party seats, sometimes at the detriment of Liberal Party seats, but certainly at the detriment of seats that are held by the Labor Party. And frankly, as a regional MP, I know community members here, putting in grants into this Building Better Regions Fund. And to hear this is just really disheartening, I think many, many council areas under the last Government, just thought, why would you even bother putting into this program. So, it's pretty disappointing to read. But we've got a big mess to clean up. And I think the previous Government has a lot to answer in relation to this.

Rowland: I guess, taking politics - Liberal National, Labor seats out of this, Catherine King - the real losers, wherever they are in Australia, are the sporting clubs who desperately needed facilities, regional communities, rather, who desperately needed facilities, who were judged to deserve those facilities on merit by the Infrastructure Department. And it was as a result of this process missed out.

King: Yeah, absolutely. I think so many people put in an enormous effort on these programs, they take a lot to put in applications like this. We'll never know, I don't see the list of what those most meritorious ones were, because that's obviously advice to the previous Government. But certainly, there will be clubs today that are community cultural facilities that are basically saying, well, maybe we were one of the ones that were more meritorious than what got funded in the National Party seats. And, frankly, I think this sort of behaviour in terms of grants programs, I think Australian's tolerance for it is really, it's just gone. And I think that I've got a big mess to clean up when it comes to this. And particularly, we need to try and get more transparent processes in place so that regional communities across the country can benefit no matter who they vote for.

Rowland: Okay. There has been some pushback from within the National Party. In fact, Fiona Nash, who's a former Deputy Leader, says the Infrastructure Department bureaucrats live in the cities, live in Canberra, they don't, in her view, have an on the ground understanding of the needs of regional communities. What do you say to that line of defence?

King: Well, I think the first thing I'd say is, in fact, actually Fiona Nash presided over round one. And that was really, according to the Audit Office, probably the best round. So, she actually did a really good job, it looks like, but basically, it all went downhill from there, once we had some of her other colleagues get hold of it. And by the end of round five, when then Minister Joyce was in charge of it, it was basically, choose your own adventure, it was, you can choose anything out of it. This was a round where they didn't ask for any recommendations from the Department at all. So, it really went downhill. So, Fiona actually did a really good job. And it sounds like the processes she used, were in fact quite balanced. And, of course, there is absolutely a place for MPs, regional MPs to be able to argue the case as to why they think a grant is important in their area. At the end of the day, this is really about transparency. Ministers have to say to people who are applying for grants need exactly what the guidelines are. Having a guideline that says, I will consider other factors and one of those factors might be other factors is just plain weird to me. But, that really is the most important thing. People need to know what they're applying for. And Ministers need to be transparent about the basis on which they're making decisions.

Rowland: Just before we go Catherine King, being one of the truisms of Australian politics is to never stand between a politician and a pot of money. Can you can you give a rock-solid guarantee that you, any of your colleagues, will not do anything like this during you term of Government and if you do, and are found out, you'll immediately resign?

King: Well, the first thing I'd say is that I think Australians have got zero tolerance for this. I'm in the process. of trying to redesign the regional grants programs at the moment, and I'll make some announcements about that. Obviously, we've got election commitments that we need to account for and be transparent about. But, I think Australian's tolerance for this is really zero. And certainly, I'm determined to make sure we have clearer, fairer, transparent processes, right the way across the regional grants programs that I administer.

Rowland: Catherine King, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

King: Really good to be with you.