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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 41

Senator O'BRIEN (3:12 PM) —I see the National Party have been given the job of defending the National Party minister who guards that little war chest—the Regional Partnerships program. We heard during question time that there was a project to fund an ethanol plant in the Deputy Prime Minister's own electorate and we heard Senator Ian Campbell say that even if there are projects that fail to find sufficient funds in the capital grants program for ethanol projects they can go to Mr Anderson and seek some extra funds from there. That means one of two things: either Regional Partnerships was set up as an overflow fund for the National Party to pork-barrel their electorates or that is an admission that the funding for the ethanol projects that were supposed to be in rural electorates was insufficient. It cannot be anything but one of those two.

Let us have a look at this Regional Partnerships program. It comprises $408 million over, I think, four years. It followed on from a number of other regional programs. I was part of a Senate inquiry that looked into the funding of a metal profiling plant in Eurobodalla Shire. Arising from the Senate committee's recommendations, the government said that they would adopt all of the procedural recommendations for appropriate scrutiny and appropriate propriety of the funding of the Regional Partnerships program. They accepted recommendations for a proper assessment process and a proper approval process. What have we got? We have got a program where now $149 million has been pledged or granted. We have got some projects that have been pledged funds that have not even put in an application. We have got a process where the Deputy Prime Minister will be the final decision maker on the application and will be the final decision maker on any review. Talk about appealing to Caesar! The Nationals are so committed to appropriate process that they have a circular appeal process going back to the original decision maker.

This is not what the government agreed and promised they would do when they implemented the Regional Partnerships program. What have we seen with this program? We have seen projects that have been promised money and then promised an additional amount of money. The government have said, `Let's get our candidate across the line.' I think it was the Tumbi Creek project on the Central Coast to which the Prime Minister promised an amount of money and then promised the same amount again. As I understand it, there was no second application. How does that stand up in terms of propriety? How does that stand up in terms of the appropriate processes being applied to taxpayers' money?

It is all right for the government to suggest that you can make promises in an election campaign. Oppositions always do. But if the government has an existing program with a set of procedures and guidelines and has made promises to the public and parliament that it will follow appropriate process it is not then open to the government to say: `Yes, but that doesn't count in an election campaign. We've got a program. The parliament has approved funding for the program. We've put in place guidelines. We've put in place processes for funding of projects. But when it comes to the election campaign, it is whatever it takes and we don't care about that process.' That is what this government is saying about the Regional Partnerships program.

Senator Carr is right. There is $149 million in project grants and pledges and a whole lot of breakdown in the process applying to them. This Senate, I believe, must review the expenditure or promises of expenditure under that program. The government should be wholly open to such a process because it has got to make itself available for scrutiny. It cannot hide behind the secrecy of its departments. This Senate should ensure that we get to the bottom of those applications and discover which are proper and which are not, and, for that matter, which applications coming from rural and regional areas should have been funded but got passed over because they did not suit the political needs of The Nationals. (Time expired)