Grant rorts weaken our communities

Posted on 18 Nov 2021

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

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Government abuse of grantmaking schemes seems to be attaining a solidly bipartisan level of concern in this country. Inquiries and auditors in Victoria, in NSW and federally are looking at allegations of bias in favour of a faction, a friend, and a party, respectively.

Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

I run an organisation that develops and sells, among other things, grantmaking software, and I’d like to clarify why our politicians’ efforts should be directed towards getting nationwide agreement on what makes a good grant.

People set up grants programs when there’s something they want done and they don’t want to do it themselves, more often than not to make our communities stronger and more vibrant. So they write down what they want to happen and who’s qualified to apply, and they advertise.

Then the applications come in. The officers decide which applications offer the most bang for the buck, arranges the list in priority order, and hands out funding till the money runs out.

At least, that’s how it works when everybody’s acting in good faith. All too often, though, the grantmaker has criteria that aren’t in the advertisement. They want to help their friends and hurt their enemies, and they pass out the money on that basis. If caught in the act, they simply say ‘It’s not an illegal practice’ (former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian) or ‘You want to call that pork barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, it’s what the elections are for’ (former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro) or that politicians ‘live and breathe’ in their communities and therefore have a better sense of what is needed than public servants (Prime Minister Scott Morrison).

So why is bias a bad thing, then?

Because it’s bad to lie to your potential partners. Grants schemes are a cross between a contract and a lottery, and in neither of those do you get points for introducing new rules after the closing date.

Grant rorting is not a victimless crime. When a not-for-profit organisation applies for a grant, they know there’s never going to be enough money for all the good causes and many will miss out.

Community leaders still put in countless unpaid evenings drafting submissions – showing how they meet the criteria, explaining why their solution to the problem is the most logical, describing how they’re going to cooperate with other local groups, and demonstrating that they have the capacity to do the job – and if they don’t win they come to accept the outcome, provided they think the grantmaker is playing fair.

If they’d known in advance that the race was fixed, though, they wouldn’t have run. They would have used their time to do other useful things.

From the point of view of the general public, it’s hardly decisive that the bias wasn’t actually illegal. We’re entitled to expect better than that. The point of the exercise wasn’t simply to hand out money to whoever met the criteria; it was to do the maximum possible good to achieve the set goals. We expect our governments to use the available money in the most efficient way possible: to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Unspoken criteria make it very difficult to assess afterwards whether what was funded actually worked. If the project didn’t meet its goals and ran over budget, but may have won the marginal seat for the incumbent, how do you score that?

Mind you, if you believe Mr Morrison, then Coalition politicians make better decisions than impartial public servants.

If that’s so, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be prepared to defend those decisions. The politician could set out in writing why they thought the grants selection committee was mistaken, and proudly take responsibility for overruling the experts.

And I don’t see why they shouldn’t assess the project outcomes separately, too, so that we could check them against the average and see over time whether political fixes were in fact superior. I know how I’d bet.

The primary problem with grants rorts, though, is the loss of faith in government. In advertising a grants program, the government gives its word that these criteria, and only these, are the standards against which applications will be judged. If it has other, undisclosed, electorally related criteria, then it’s breaking a promise. That’s not illegal, but it is dishonourable and killing off goodwill and good community groups.

I’m prepared to be told that it’s naïve to expect a government, any government, to behave ethically. I don’t think, though, it’s unreasonable to expect that when a government is caught red-handed in front of an open safe holding a sack labelled ‘Swag’, it looks a little ashamed.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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