Press conference


Catherine King, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government: Yesterday, the Australian National Audit Office tabled the report into the previous Morison Government's Building Better Regions Fund. This is a $1.1 billion fund and the audit report is pretty damning. It basically said over the five rounds of this fund, the government didn't get better at administrating grants, it actually got worse and worse and worse. And by the end, it resulted in over 65% of the grants that were funded, not being the most meritorious grants as recommended by the Department. And so bad did it get that in fact, what the Ministers did - this was a secret Ministerial panel making decisions led by Barnaby Joyce the then responsible Minister at the end - to get around some of the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines, they basically said, we don't want any recommendations from the Department and we will just select from a big pool of possible projects. And it meant that they then did not have to report whether they went against Departmental recommendations or not. In a scene that I think would probably have its place in a Kafka-esque play of some sort they decided to include in the Guidelines, they had the full published Guidelines that everybody put their applications under. But, they also had a Guidelines called other matters. And one of the dot points that listed here as some of the factors that Ministers might take into account when making decisions was a dot point, other matters. So basically, what they did is ensured that anything they funded, they could do. And the result? Not surprisingly, more funding went to National and Liberal Party seats, and in fact, more funding went to National Party seats, $104 million than otherwise would have had they followed the merit assessment of the Department and what it recommended. Any questions?

Journalist: So Catherine the latest AEMO Report out today confirms how outrageously high power prices are, is it still possible for the Government to deliver a $250 cut to bills?

King: We are very, very conscious of what is happening with inflation at the moment. And of course, energy prices are part of that. The previous Government obviously hid just before the election campaign, a report that shows that power prices were increasing by about 25%. We are determined as a Government to do everything we can with the conditions we have inherited from the previous Morison Government, to get inflation down, to actually activate the renewable energy power of this country and to be able to make sure we get that into markets around the country, and to get power prices down. But let's be frank, we've had a decade of, I can't remember how many others 25 or 27 different energy plans, and we've had a decade of delay and inaction on renewable energy. And we are well behind where we should be in terms of getting that energy into the marketplace and actually getting power prices down. We are trying to do all we can to bring inflation down, to bring energy prices down and we'll certainly do our absolute best to do that for the people of Australia.

Journalist: Just on rising power prices, do households and businesses just have to deal with it? [Inaudible]

King: Well, certainly we know that power prices are one of the pressures that are coming to people across our community, whether it's businesses, large businesses, small manufacturing businesses, or people in their homes. We are trying to do everything we can to get inflation down, and that includes to get power prices down. But we can't fix everything. We can't fix the mess of nine years in office just in nine weeks. We're doing everything we can to bring forward our Powering Australia Plan. We put legislation into the Parliament just this week, in our first two days of sitting as a Government and we'll do everything we can to put those policies in place to try and drive inflation down.

Journalist: It sounds like you're managing expectations. Will the government be up front with people if that $275 cut [inaudible] isn't possible?

King: Well, let's be very clear, the promise that we made and the policy we took to the election, the Powering Australia Plan, modelled by RepuTex was the most comprehensive plan in terms of both energy and renewables and actually getting those into people's homes than we have ever seen before. We stand by that. That is the policy we are implementing, we stand by the modelling that occurred prior to the election, the most comprehensive modelling that any party, any political party has ever done on a policy. And we stand by that and we will do everything we can to get the inflationary pressures that we have control over, out of the out of the economy. And finally, once and for all, make sure that Australia becomes the renewable energy superpower that we really should have been.

Journalist: But Minister isn't that modelling out of date? The circumstances are pretty different from when the numbers were first crunched for the Powering Australia Plan.

King: The modelling is based on our Powering Australia Plan that we are implementing as a Government. And I am very confident that Chris Bowen as Energy Minister, that Jim Chalmers, as Treasurer are doing everything they can to implement that policy, and to do what we can as a Government to be upfront with people about the circumstances we've inherited, but to also implement the policies that we took to the last election.

Journalist: Minister, I just have a couple of questions on the report on the Building Better Regions Fund. The Nationals did quite well at the recent election. Do you think that this funding played any part in that?

King: Well, that's really a matter for them. There's a reason that they did it, there is a reason that they funded more projects in their seats. You know, there are regions like mine here in Ballarat, that frankly, have missed out on Building Better Regions fund. And if we did get grants, it was at those really smaller community events grants when you see some of the grants: millions of dollars into sporting facilities, boat infrastructure, you name it, and we're starting to see some of that now. Really, that's the a matter for the National Party but there is a reason that they did it and they made sure their seats did well out of this fund and I'll let people draw their own conclusions from that.

Journalist: What conclusions do you draw from it?

King: Well, I'm going to let people draw their own. I think the Australian National Audit Office concluded that they did much better out of this fund, the Nationals did much better out of this, than if they had to follow the merit-based process and the merit-based assessment of the Department.

Journalist: Is this pork barrelling?

King: Certainly I think that in terms of what we've seen, in waste and rorts, we've got a big job to do. I think this is certainly one of those funds, you would have to say, if the target is that you want to help, lift up regional Australia, lift up every region, that this fund did not do that. It lifted up some regions at the expense of others. And certainly, I think you'd have to say that the National Party have had their hands in the cookie jar when it comes to regional funding. And it's something that's waste and rorts in terms of regional funding, fairness in regional funding, is something we want to see. But we want to see the end of waste and rorts.

Journalist: There is still another round of funding to go, what will you and the new Government do about that?

King: Well, I haven't made any decisions about the Building Better Regions Fund round six. But it is fair to say, when you get a damning audit office report into this fund, that it is pretty hard to see that the fund is not corrupted in some way. There has to be, of course, we want to get funding into regional communities. But we want to do that in a transparent way, a fair way, a way that actually helps economic productivity across our regions, not just those seats that the National Party holds. We want to help Liberal Party seats, we want to help seats held by Independents. Really what we want to do is help regional communities right the way across the board. And I'll certainly be focusing on that as I digest this audit report and make decisions going forward as we lead into the October budget.

Journalist: Just to be clear then, you are open to un-approving projects that have been approved [inaudible]?

King: There has been no projects approved under round six of the Building Better Regions Fund that round was not concluded prior to the caretaker period. So, no projects have been approved under that round at all. I am looking as all Government Ministers at the moment, as part of our October budget process. I am looking at the grants programs that are not contracted, I am looking at infrastructure program funding and the capacities within the states and territories. I am looking at that line by line to look at the waste and rorts that have happened under the previous Government and frankly they are now looking to be in the millions and billions of dollars across all portfolios. I am looking at all of those. And I'll certainly have more to say about regional funding programs as we go forward into the October budget.

Journalist: I guess just on transparency, are you committed to potentially publishing which projects are funded, which missed out and and grading [inaudible]?

King: I will not get a list of the projects that were funded under, that were recommended under the BBRF. That is advice to the previous Government, unless the National Party want to be transparent and actually provide those documents to us, that is advice that went to the previous Government. I'm sure there are lots of communities that would like to know, if they were higher on the list than some of the projects that got funded, they'd like to know that. And they'd like to know why. What I commit to is absolutely as we go forward, in terms of regional funding programs, is building in greater transparency, greater accountability of Ministers, providing opportunities for all MPs, regardless of their political persuasion in all communities, to be able to advocate for their projects and to have a fair and transparent process in assessing those. There are requirements from Ministers under the Commonwealth Grants Guidelines to get advice from their Department to have recommendations on projects from their Department. Where Ministers depart from that, we have put in place that they must report that to the Department of Finance and report that publicly. That's not what we saw under the Building Better Regions Fund, we saw a Government that increasingly tried to hide the decisions it was making and the end result of that, is that 65% of the projects in the infrastructure stream, the big funding, went to those projects that were not the most meritorious.

Journalist: Does the current situation of sky-high coal and gas prices strengthen the case that we need a faster transition to renewables? And is a faster transition actually possible?

King: Well, we've laid out our plan in our Powering Australia Plan and we've laid out legislation for our target, we know that we are a long way behind where we should be, we know we are because we have had a decade of delay, a decade of inaction. Imagine if we had a Labor Government a decade ago, who started this transition, started the transition to renewables in our economy, and then we have basically had a decade where we've not only had a Government that stalled progress, it actively stood in the way. We are determined to implement our Powering Australia Plan. And that includes Rewiring the Nation, getting renewable energy into the grid, doing that in a way that we help and work alongside communities as we do so. That's the important focus that we have and that's the plan that we'll be implementing as we go forward as a Government.

Journalist: And that includes the $275 saving for people on their power bills?.

King: That's part of the modelling for Powering Australia. That is part of the RepuTex modelling that we did as part of our Powering Australia Plan. And we intend to do everything we can to get renewables into the grid, to get power prices down and to get inflation down in those areas that we can control.

Journalist: What role do you think there is for ministerial discretion [inaudible]? Are there any circumstances where discretion mis warranted?

King: Well, at the end of the day, Ministers all have to sign off on the grants and funds that are under their own portfolios. That is the authority that we have and we do have to do that. So, that discretion exists, it's really about the transparency, the accountability for the decisions that you make, and that's what the audit office is saying. If you have published guidelines, then you stick to those Guidelines, you don't add in other matters that suddenly appear and can influence a decision. If you depart from recommendations from your department, you need to explain why you do that. And that's the problem with this particular round, with this particular fund is that we didn't see an increasing transparency and increasing accountability, we saw decreasing accountability, particularly as we got closer and closer to election campaigns.