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Election 2007: Auditor-General releases report on Regional Partnerships program.

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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Parliamentary Library.


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Thur sday 15 November 2007

Election 2007: Auditor-General releases report on Regional Partnerships program


MARK COLVIN: At the worst possible time for a government trailing in the polls, com es an alleged scandal with echoes of Labor's Ros Kelly whiteboard affair in the 90s. 


Again it involves suggestions of federal grant money being spent to win key electorates. 


And again there's a Kelly at the centre of it.  


This time it's National Party MP De-Anne Kelly and what may have been the most productive half hour in her whole political career. 


Between 3.25 and 4.04 in the afternoon of August 31, 2004, the then-Parliamentary Secretary for Transport and Regional Services, approved 15 project in the Government's Regional Partnerships program. 


An hour later the caretaker period for the election kicked in. 


It's just one of the revelations in a damning three volume Auditor-General's report on the program. 


Chief political correspondent Chris Uhlmann has the story. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: When things go bad, they sometimes go very bad. 


SIMON CREAN: It's a damning indictment of the way in which the National party and the Government have used Regional Partnerships program as a blatant pork-barrelling exercise just before an election is called. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: The Shadow Minister for Regional Development, Simon Crean, has seized on an Auditor-General's report on the Regional Partnerships program. 


It's the latest hurdle the Coalition will have to jump as it tries to track down a front running Labor Party with the election just nine days away. 


And it's a sizeable new obstacle. 


The massive three-volume, 1200 page report picks apart the first three years of a controversial program which handed out $327-million to more than 1,000 projects, ranging in size from $2,000 to $11-million. 


It finds the program fell short of acceptable standards of public administration. 


The Minister for Regional Services, Mark Vaile, defends the program. 


MARK VAILE: The electorates in regional Australia are mostly represented by Coalition members, well not mostly but I mean the majority electorates in regional Australia are represented by Coalition members and a significant number of those are the disadvantaged electorates across Australia, the ones with, for example the lower level household incomes in them. 


And you know this program is about strengthening local economies, providing job opportunities, strengthening the social fabric in those communities and it's an incredibly important program to ensure that, that takes place and that the prosperity we have in this country is directed in that way. 


Now, we have approached this with a very open mind. My department has worked very closely with the ANAO (Australian National Audit Office) as they've undertaken this report so we can continue to improve the program. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: The Auditor agrees with the Minister on one point, that the majority of eligible electorates at the time were represented by the Coalition. But the report goes on to say that Labor electorates were under-represented.  


Its analysis shows the ministers were more likely to approve funding for projects that had not been approved by the department if they were submitted by applicants in Liberal and National electorates. 


And they were more likely to knock-back approved projects in Labor seats. 


SIMON CREAN: They've rushed through, just before the last election a whole string of programs. A number of them, according to this report, and I haven't seen the final number, but were done against recommendations.  


But clearly this is the pork-barrel mentality of the National Party. 


We've drawn attention to this criticism before. We've called for urgent recommendations for change to the way the program's administered it; the Government's ignored it. The Parliament has recommended certain things, now the Auditor-General's report is damning in the extreme at the way in which this has been run. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Despite the findings Labor is not calling for the program to be shut down but Simon Crean does want the Minister to apologise. 


And Mark Vaile isn't about to do that. 


MARK VAILE: The Department accepts all the recommendations in the report and many of those have been implemented. For example, we've already made major changes in the program by establishing a ministerial committee to make funding decisions, centralising the assessment of projects in Canberra, to improve the consistency of decision making and revising the programs guidelines to make them clearer and much more transparent.  


So, a lot of the suggestions, a lot of the improvements that the ANAO talks about, have actually already been implemented. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Opposition leader Kevin Rudd is on the campaign trail in North Queensland and knows a gift when he sees it. 


KEVIN RUDD: The Auditor-General in a three volume, 1200 page document, has produced an indictment of a government which has become arrogant and out of touch in its use and abuse of taxpayer funds. 


Mr Howard must today accept responsibility for the arrogant abuse of this $328-million program. 


And secondly, Mr Howard must today explain to the Australian people how this abuse of such a massive amount of taxpayer dollars occurred. How did it occur on his watch? 


CHRIS UHLMANN: The Prime Minister says he hasn't seen the report. 


JOHN HOWARD: I think the Regional Partnership scheme has brought a lot of benefits to a lot of people in many parts of Australia. 


JOURNALIST: It says funding has been approved in many cases before applications have come in. 


JOHN HOWARD: I think the Regional Partnership scheme has brought lots of benefits to lots of communities in lots of areas of Australia. 


MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister ending Chris Uhlmann's report.