Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie has dismissed concerns Coalition seats disproportionately benefited from $300m of regional grants, saying all of the projects funded in the scheme were “valid” and “that’s how it goes”.
McKenzie and former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack have both backed the fifth round of Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF) grants, amid concerns by Labor it has been used to “pork-barrel” Coalition and marginal seats.
It also comes as academic Anne Twomey warns there is a “good chance” the federal government lacks power to award many of the latest round of grants.
The BBRF is under intense scrutiny due to a Labor analysis finding the latest round of grants overwhelmingly benefited Coalition-held seats and a looming Australian National Audit Office report, to be released in May.
The fund, which has broad remit to pay for any infrastructure with “economic and social benefits to regional and remote areas”, will pay for $218m of projects in Coalition electorates. That represents 72% of the value of this round of grants despite the Coalition only holding 60% of eligible seats.
On Wednesday, McKenzie denied that voters could only expect decent facilities if they live in Coalition-held electorates.
She told Radio National she was “proud … to spend regional funds in regions”, criticising Labor for funding projects in capital cities with the same program when in government.
Asked about the discrepancy in funding for Coalition and Labor seats, McKenzie replied that all projects funded were “valid” and the program was “completely oversubscribed”, with $1.7bn of applications.
“Decisions have to be made and – that’s how it goes.”
McKenzie and McCormack were not responsible for the administration of the scheme. According to grant guidelines, projects were scored by the Department of Infrastructure by reference to the grant criteria, with projects that received a score of more than 60% in all criteria eligible for funding and submitted to a ministerial panel chaired by Barnaby Joyce.
The latest round, announced on Friday, cover a broad range of ventures, including $21,240 to help Heaven Vintage Motocross host the 2021 championships in Nowra, and $62,000 for the Dirranbandi Pastoral and Agricultural Association to stage the Paul Kelly & Friends concert in Dirranbandi, western Queensland.
Fermentation Tasmania will receive $7.5m for the global centre for excellence in fermentation, to include a business incubator, research and development facilities, and facilitate agritourism.
The Cloncurry shire council received $5m towards a $6.75m project to build nine houses in the shire, just east of Mount Isa in north Queensland.
Cloncurry mayor Greg Campbell told the North West Star the Perkins St housing project would provide some publicly leased houses and some to be used by the Dugald River mine, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the council.
The mine is owned by MMG Ltd, whose major shareholder is China Minmetals Corporation, one of China’s major multinational state-owned enterprises.
On Tuesday Nationals MP Anne Webster revealed that Coalition MPs were briefed on the content of colour-coded spreadsheets and asked if they wanted to lobby for prospective projects that missed the cut.
McCormack told Guardian Australia it is appropriate that local MPs get input on projects set to be knocked out by “bureaucrats who don’t understand the nuances, needs and wants of regional communities”.
McCormack said he had not seen colour-coded spreadsheets and “didn’t get more heads up than any other member”, although he conceded he didn’t know which MPs were warned projects in their electorate were set to miss out.
“The Coalition holds most of the rural and regional seats,” he said. “It annoys me intensely that every time we have a regional fund … Labor comes out swinging as there’s some sort of diabolical disservice done to the nation as a whole.”
The grants have also won attention from Twomey, who believes the government lacks constitutional authority for local projects such as “resurfacing a football oval”.
“The people who wrote the constitution really didn’t think that was what a federal government was for,” Twomey told Guardian Australia.
“In terms of bringing legal proceedings, it’s incredibly expensive and it’s highly risky as you might get costs awarded against you if you lose. It is therefore extremely rare for the commonwealth to be challenged, and it knows it.”
Twomey was not commenting on any particular grants in the latest ground, and Guardian Australia does not suggest that any grants named in this article are necessarily at risk of challenge.
According to finance department regulations, the BBRF is supported by 11 constitutional heads of power including the commonwealth role in enacting international treaties and “measures that are peculiarly adapted to the government of a nation”.
An infrastructure department spokesperson said: “Commonwealth expenditure is rigorously evaluated as a matter of course before any money is spent and the commonwealth is satisfied of the validity of expenditure under the [BBRF].”
McCormack dismissed constitutional concerns, arguing if the federal government didn’t fund local projects like regional swimming pools they either wouldn’t be built or state governments would “cream off” up to 10% of funding to administer grants.
“Governments have got to be able to roll out infrastructure, without constitutional lawyers at five paces every time we try to roll something out.”
“All selected projects were assessed against publicly available guidelines as eligible and providing value for money,” a spokesperson for Joyce said.
“MPs of all political persuasions have the ability to advocate for projects in their communities.”
Guardian Australia contacted Joyce and Cloncurry shire council for comment.