NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro to front Stronger Communities Fund hearing

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NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro has agreed to testify in front of a hearing into an alleged pork barrelling scandal that’s become a lasting headache for the Coalition government.

Mr Barilaro will answer questions about his handling of the $252 million Stronger Communities Fund, a grants scheme meant for struggling councils that ended up overwhelmingly benefiting loyal government districts.

The upper house inquiry has previously heard the NSW Nationals leader was responsible for allocating $61.3 million, or a quarter of the funds.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian allocated $141.8 million, and the former local government minister, Gabrielle Upton, approved $48.9 million.

At a hearing last week, former staffers for all three politicians were dragged in front of the Public Accountability Committee after the Premier declined to testify.

But the staffers, none of whom are still in the same roles they had when the grants were handed out in 2018 and 2019, said they couldn’t provide the answers the committee wanted because the key decisions under scrutiny were made by politicians.

“I am just a mere staffer. I have no authority,” Ms Upton’s former chief of staff Kevin Wilde said.

That hearing also revealed councils that sued over forced mergers were punished by being left out of the grants round, while the councils that did get funding were awarded without a formal merit-based process.

The Premier previously had an embarrassing setback when documents her office had shredded were digitally recovered and produced to the committee.

The papers revealed she had a far more significant involvement in the grants scheme than she had previously let on.

Answering a barrage of questions from reporters the day the shredded documents were made public, Ms Berejiklian admitted the grants program was a pork-barrelling scheme and said trying to buy votes was something most politicians engaged in.

Despite those revelations, the Premier has refused to testify in front of the committee.

In a letter to the committee written by a director of the Office of the Premier in November, the person declined an invitation on behalf of Ms Berejiklian and said members could instead question her during budget estimates hearings next year.

“If the Premier has nothing to hide, she will agree to appear before the Public Accountability Committee, like John Barilaro has agreed to do,” Labor MP and committee member John Graham said in a statement.

The committee has sent another invitation to the Premier, and also sent invitations to Mr Barilaro and Ms Upton.

Mr Barilaro accepted and will testify on February 8.

The Premier and Ms Upton have yet to respond to the invites.



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