The fund, established after council mergers in 2016, handed out the vast majority of $250 million in grants in Coalition-held electorates in the lead up to last year’s state election. The government continues to maintain the Office of Local Government was ultimately responsible for deciding which council received grants.
It is now the subject of the upper house inquiry, which has previously heard evidence that documents related to the grants program were shredded by a staffer in Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s office in a potential breach of the State Records Act.
The Premier declined an invitation to give evidence at the inquiry on Wednesday, with the committee instead hearing evidence from three former ministerial staffers, including Ms Berejiklian’s former policy advisor Matthew Crocker.
Mr Crocker told the inquiry the responsibility for approving grants to councils like Hornsby, which received $90 million, always lay with the Office of Local Government.
The inquiry then heard evidence from a previous witness – another policy advisor to the Premier Sarah Lau – who said Mr Crocker had asked her to speak to a parliamentary liaison team about contacting MPs in electorates that sought funding.
Committee chair and upper house Greens MP David Shoebridge put it to Mr Crocker that he had given directions to Ms Lau that the fund be distributed solely through contacts with coalition MPs.
“I don’t think I would characterise my conversations in that way,” Mr Crocker said.
“I gave advice on how the issue should be dealt with when it came to the question about the council’s who were appropriate to be funded under the program in my view.”
The inquiry also heard evidence from Kevin Wilde, the former chief of staff to former Minister for Local Government Gabrielle Upton, who said he never had any oversight over the fund, despite his then-minister approving around $50 million in grants.
“The Office of Local Government administered the fund. The decision was made by the government through cabinet initially, and then administered through the Office of local government.
He said the fact that some councils were funded and some were not, was a decision “made by politicians, not by staffers”.
Mr Harris, who has previously said the Premier should resign over the grants scheme, said it damaged the “social contract” between the government and the electorate.
“Indeed, the whole program, as the Premier has indicated, has done nothing but detract from that social contract,” he said.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Ms Upton have now been invited to give evidence when the committee resumes next year.
Labor MLC John Graham said no one in government was owning up to approving the grants.
“I can understand why, because those people are going to be in very serious trouble by the time this process finishes,” he said.
Mr Shoebridge said it was time for the Premier to front the inquiry oath how the money was allocated.
A NSW government spokesperson said the Stronger Communities Fund provided upgrades to many community facilities, including upgrades to parklands, surf clubs, and water infrastructure in drought-affected areas.
“These facilities are enjoyed by families and residents across the state, including $425,000 given to Central Coast Council for a long-overdue upgrade of the Mingara Athletics Track which is used by dozens of schools, not for profit organisations and sports clubs,” the spokesperson said.
Around the time it recieved approval for a grant the Mingara Recreational Club made two donations to the Liberal party, including $995 during a dinner with Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Baulkham Hills MP David Elliott at the Crown Plaza in Terrigal.
Lucy Cormack is a state political reporter with The
Sydney Morning Herald.
Angus Thompson is an Urban Affairs reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.