The NSW Auditor-General has criticised the State Government’s Department of Regional New South Wales, saying the process for fast-tracked grants in the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Program (BLER Fund) “lacked integrity”.
The BLER program was created after the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires and committed funding to bushfire affected areas. It was co-funded by the Commonwealth and NSW governments.
Blue Mountains City Council did not receive a single cent from the first stage of the grants program, despite submitting more than 20 shovel-ready projects.
“The report by the Auditor General today has confirmed what we said at the time,” Mayor, Cr Greenhill said.
“In the first round of bushfire grant funds, the rules were changed in the office of the then Deputy Premier to exclude the Blue Mountains community and other non-coalition areas.
“Our recovery experience, following those devastating bushfires, was denigrated by a Liberal-National government so debased it was prepared to politicise disaster recovery.
“Trish Doyle MP and Susan Templeman MP stood shoulder to shoulder with me in calling this out, and together we intend to hold this awful State Government to account.
The Auditor-General found:
- The Department of Regional NSW did not effectively administer the Fast-Tracked stream of the BLER.
- The administration process lacked integrity, given it did not have sufficiently detailed guidelines and the assessment process for projects lacked transparency and consistency.
- At the request of the Deputy Premier’s office, a $1 million threshold was applied, below which projects were not approved for funding.
- This threshold resulted in a number of shortlisted projects in areas highly impacted by the bushfires being excluded, including all shortlisted projects located in Labor Party-held electorates.
- The department’s administration of the SDG stream had a detailed and transparent assessment process. However, conflicts of interest were not effectively managed.
The application of the $1 million minimum threshold resulted in the exclusion of nine projects, including all projects in Labor Party-held electorates… there were three highly impacted Local Government Areas in Labor-held electorates, including Blue Mountains City Council.
“After the devastation members of our community experienced, during and after the Black Summer bushfires, I am horrified to know that our own State Government acted in this way when so many were hurting,” Mayor Greenhill said.
The previous parliamentary inquiry into the State Government’s handling of bushfire grants also pointed to serious flaws that saw funding go predominantly to Liberal and National electorates.
That report, released in February 2022, censured the government for a series of critical failures in its grant distribution that left many badly affected non-Coalition seats without much-needed funding. This included the Blue Mountains with damage of $65.4 million.