Questions over Liberals' use of Premier's Discretionary Grants fund prior to Tasmanian state election

© Provided by ABC NEWS Several Liberal MPs accessed a community grants fund in the period before the state election was called.  (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Tasmanian Liberal Party MPs ramped up their use of a little-known community grants fund in the three months before the last state election was called, with spending between January and March more than double the same period last year, new figures show. 

The spending has prompted the opposition to label the Premier’s Discretionary Fund a “Liberal re-election slush fund”.

The fund allows for small grants of up to $10,000 to be paid to community groups or individuals.

In the first three months of 2021, grants totalling $92,154 were paid from the fund, to groups such as the Royal Hobart Regatta, Wynyard Agricultural and Pastoral Society, Tasmanian Rare Breeds Poultry Club, Burnie Coastal Art Group, and the Reconciliation Council of Tasmania. 

That is more than the amount paid in the two previous quarters combined, which totalled $84,306, and more than double the $42,162 paid between January and March 2020.  

Between April and June last year the value of grants handed out was higher, at $153,119.

Many of those grants were for COVID-19 preparedness.

Labor finance spokesman Dean Winter said he had concerns about the appropriateness of the fund. 

“The government has used taxpayers’ money to fund a Liberal re-election slush fund,” Mr Winter said. 

“The timing is very curious and the Liberals need to explain what the process was for this money to be distributed in this way.

“When you see slush funds like this used to spend just in this quarter over $92,000, then people would be concerned about the Premier’s spending and whether this program is the best way to spend taxpayer’s money.”

Labor queried the use of the fund during recent Budget Estimates hearings, and asked for a list of the MPs who requested grants. 

The breakdown reveals more than a third of the amount spent between January and March this year —$35,328 — was for 12 grants issued as a result of requests made directly to the Premier. 

Of the other 22 grants, 19 were requested by Liberal MPs. 

Ten Liberal MPs requested grants from the fund, with Clark MHA Elise Archer asking for the most — four grants totalling $18,256 — followed by Braddon MHA Roger Jaensch requesting two grants totalling $8,500 and Franklin’s Nic Street requesting three grants totalling $7,500. 

Labor MLCs Josh Willie and Craig Farrell each requested one grant worth $3,000, while Federal Labor MHR Brian Mitchell requested a grant of $1,700. 

According to the Premier’s department, grant amounts “can vary dramatically between quarters including comparable reporting periods across different years”.

It said no 2021 state election candidates received any grants through the Premier’s Discretionary Fund.

A government spokesman said the fund was a simple way to provide one-off financial support to community members, groups and causes that may not otherwise be eligible for grant funding. 

The spokesman said most grants were relatively small, with a total budget allocation for 2020-21 of $335,000. 

“Any member of Parliament can apply for funding, including from Labor, and the amounts allocated can vary from year to year, quarter to quarter, depending on the specific projects that require funding,” the government spokesman said. 

“Labor should focus on actually listening to and representing their communities, instead of inventing conspiracy theories around this, especially given the low annual value of this fund used to fulfil requests made by all members.”

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