Nats defend $100m extra in regional grants

Labor senator Katy Gallagher's bill would introduce accountability measures for federal grants.
Labor senator Katy Gallagher's bill would introduce accountability measures for federal grants.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has defended pumping an extra $100 million into a regional grants fund, as Labor called on the parliament to back laws to stamp out political pork-barrelling.

Questions have been raised about the distribution of the latest $300 million round of the Building Better Regions Fund, which is being examined by the national audit office.

The grants round was initially to total $200 million, but the Nationals sought a top-up.

The deputy prime minister told parliament it was the sort of thing the Nationals would continue to do to "look after that disparity of what has happened in regards to investment in the capitals and investment out in the regions".

"We are focusing on regional Australia, making sure we grow this nation not in just pockets, but the length and breadth of this great country," Mr Joyce said.

Labor has proposed to overhaul how federal grants are awarded, with debate resuming on Monday on opposition finance spokeswoman Katy Gallagher's "anti-rorting bill".

It aims to increase scrutiny on grants awarded against departmental advice, outside of selection criteria or that concerned the deciding minister's own electorate.

Under the proposal, these grant decisions would be referred within 30 days to the finance minister, who would need to table a report within five sitting days.

"Rorting and pork barrelling are just business as usual for (the government), as it has been for some time," Senator Gallagher said.

"The fact we're even having to introduce this bill is sad."

If the bill passes the Senate, it would be up to the government to allow debate on the issue in the House of Representatives.

Liberal senator Claire Chandler conceded it had "reasonable intentions".

But she argued it would duplicate existing reporting arrangements for government grants.

It was earlier revealed colour-coded sheets were used for the fifth round of Building Better Regions Fund.

The infrastructure department labelled projects that met the criteria green while ones that didn't were labelled pink.

A Labor analysis showed $218 million or nearly 73 per cent of the total round went to coalition seats. When non-coalition marginal seats were factored in, the figure rose to 88 per cent.

The government dismissed the criticism and maintained the scheme was valid.

Before the 2019 election, it used a list of "top 20 marginals" to guide a $660 million fund for car parks at train stations.

Money was allocated to electorates before projects were finalised and an open and competitive tender process proposed by treasury was rejected.

The Australian National Audit Office found the funding was poorly administered and projects were not based on need.

"Rorts have reached a crisis point," Senator Gallagher said.

"This government is at the point where it doesn't care at getting caught any more and, to be honest, this behaviour is blatant and brazen."

Australian Associated Press