The program was supposed to be administered by the Office of Local Government but its CEO Tim Hurst liaised extensively with Mr Barilaro’s parliamentary office and his Monaro electoral office, as well as Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s office, about how the money would be spent.
Greens upper house member David Shoebridge, who obtained the emails under the upper house’s “call for papers” powers, said there were no integrity measures in place to protect the public from conflicts of interest with the grants scheme.
“Even though there were no formal protections in place, it’s hard to believe that John Barilaro didn’t realise he shouldn’t be approving grants for his own electorate,” Mr Shoebridge said.
Emails show Mr Barilaro’s office also helped orchestrate funding for Murrumbidgee Council, which straddled Liberal and National seats, with correspondence directly between his office and Nationals MP Austin Evans in the lead-up to the election. Mr Evans lost the seat to Helen Dalton of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
Mr Barilaro’s office also approved money for Hilltops Council in the state’s south-west, sending a list of projects to Mr Hurst on July 17, 2018, for Nationals MP Steph Cooke to announce the following day.
An OLG representative said in the email chain the council shouldn’t be contacted until after the funding was announced.
The parliamentary Public Accountability Committee, of which Mr Shoebridge is chair, has launched an inquiry into government grants schemes, to test their integrity and value for money.
Mr Barilaro’s office didn’t directly answer questions from The Sun-Herald about whether it was appropriate for the Deputy Premier to approve projects in his own electorate, and to his own party colleagues.
But a spokesman said the set funding guidelines were followed at all times and nominated regional projects which were eligible received funding. “This program has delivered significant benefits to local communities across the state,” the spokesman.
Following revelations Ms Berejiklian directly approved more than $100 million in council grants going to Coalition held seats, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet defended the government’s administration of the scheme on Saturday.
“Politicians are elected to make decisions. It’s not the role of the public service, the role of the public service is to advise,” Mr Perrottet said.
Asked why the Premier and Deputy Premier were involved in those decisions, Mr Perrottet said it was ultimately NSW government funding.
“Those investments have gone on to provide significant support from local communities. We have invested more in local councils and local projects than any other government before us,” he said.
A previous Greens analysis of the allotment of Stronger Communities Fund grants showed almost 80 per cent of the $250 million pool had been given to Coalition-held seats since 2017.
The Stronger Communities Fund was set up by the Baird government to financially aid new councils during several statewide mergers in 2016. Snowy Monaro Regional Council and Queanbeyan Palerang Regional Councils were both created out of amalgamations during that period.
The guidelines were updated by the Premier, Deputy Premier and then-Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton in June 2018, around the same time Ms Berejiklian approved funds for councils that had not been amalgamated – including Hornsby Shire Council, which received $90 million.
The money for Snowy Monaro and Queanbeyan Palerang was allocated for school playgrounds, Rotary facilities, charity food services, golf club upgrades, and Oktoberfest celebrations, among other local projects.
Mr Barilaro joined council and community representatives to publicly announce the projects.
Angus Thompson is an Urban Affairs reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.