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Auditor-General slams $200m regional business grants process

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The Auditor-General has criticised a series of errors in the administration of a $200 million national taxpayer grants program for regional businesses, including members of an Upper Spencer Gulf approvals committee signing forms meant for North Queensland.

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The federal government awarded nine businesses in the Upper Spencer Gulf region of South Australia a total of $19.89 million from the national $220.5 million Regional Jobs and Investment Packages program last year.

The program originated from the Coalition’s 2016 election commitment to establish a regional jobs and growth grants program.

A report into the program, penned by the federal Auditor-General, found that the program’s eligibility and merit assessment processes failed to meet appropriate standards.

The report was tabled in federal parliament yesterday afternoon, while many Australians were watching the Melbourne Cup.

It says that the federal Department of Infrastructure had been responsible for the program – but outsourced it to the federal Department of Industry, which, in turn, outsourced it to a commercial contractor.

And about 20 per cent of the approximately 700 applications for funding were incorrectly scored against merit criteria.

By the time it came to the final funding decisions, around April 2018, a panel of federal ministers rejected 28 per cent of the applications that had been recommended – and approved 17 per cent of applications that had not been recommended.

“Appropriate checks and controls were not in place for eligibility and merit assessments (and) applicant claims were being taken at face value without appropriate scrutiny,” the Auditor-General’s report reads.

“(The Department of) Infrastructure developed a framework that required local planning committee members to declare perceived and actual conflicts of interests but there were various shortcomings in the implementation of this framework that resulted in errors and missing declarations.”

Among the documented errors, local planning committees in four jurisdictions – including South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf region – had signed documents meant for Tropical North Queensland as part of the process.

Across the country, “it was common for forms to not be signed, dated or to have other fields not completed”, the report found.

More than four out of every five personal interest declarations featured “one or more of these characteristics”.

In addition, although ineligible applications were identified, “not all of those identified were removed from further consideration”.

The Department of Infrastructure agreed to three recommendations from the Auditor-General’s report, including that it would review assessment practices to identify any shortcomings.

The South Australian beneficiaries of the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages businesses based in Whyalla, Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Fitzgerald Bay, according to a report in The Advertiser last year.

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