Cooke forced to once again defend pork-barrelling claims

Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke has defended her position after a NSW parliamentary Upper House Committee last week handed down its final report into alleged ‘pork-barrelling’ by the State Government. 

The public accountability committee tabled its final report about the integrity, efficiency and value for money of grant programs such as the Stronger Country Communities Fund (SCCF) last Thursday. 

The committees chair, Greens MLC David Shoebridge, delivered a scathing outline of the findings, saying the report reveals “widespread failures of grants allocation in NSW.” 

Gundagai and several other Cootamundra electorate communities have benefited from the fund. 

When asked about her thoughts on the pork-barrelling claims, Ms Cooke reiterated her defence of the SCCF. 

“As the local Member of Parliament, I have worked hard to ensure our electorate receives its fair share of funding across the range of programs the NSW Government has made available and I will continue to do so,” Ms Cooke said.

“Any investment in the future of our small communities is very welcome. It is fantastic that the NSW Government has ensured regional communities are supported through a broad range of programs, from community facilities to critical road and rail projects, new school and health infrastructure. I also think it’s important to acknowledge the considerable time and effort put in by local government and community organisations to prepare applications for these funding opportunities. 

“A review is underway into the administration of grants programs and procedures. I am advised that the NSW Government will consider the findings of the Upper House inquiry in conjunction with the review.” 

Ms Cooke and her SCCF grants have been targeted with pork-barrelling claims from Labor and the Greens for several years. 

The NSW Upper House inquiry into the government’s misuse of $400 million of public funds began last year. 

Of particular interest was the number of SCCF grants that were approved by the government for the Cootamundra electorate prior to 2020.

About 180 grants totalling almost $42 million were awarded to projects located in the seat. 

The electorate received more grants than the total number allocated to projects located in Labor, the Greens and Shooters and Fishers electorates. 

Ms Cooke defended the grants program and took aim at the Shadow Minister for Local Government Greg Warren who claimed the number of grants given to projects in the electorate was “nothing but a blatant attempt to buy the seat”. 

In response, Ms Cooke said, “the shadow minister is either deliberately misleading the media and the public, or his calculator is broken”.

“The simple fact is the SCCF is allocated by Local Government Areas (LGA), not electorates,” she said. 

She went on to point out her electorate received $35,118,679 across three rounds of the SCCF up until that time. 

“The SCCF is a critical fund for upgrading community infrastructure, which is vital after 16 years of neglect of rural and regional areas from Labor governments,” she said. 

“I am not sure where the shadow minister found his figures but they are incorrect.”

Speaking last Thursday, Mr Shoebridge said it was “extremely disappointing to see the government repeatedly use grant programs for political gain”. 

“To this end, we have made a suit of recommendations based on our findings, which, alongside the recommendations of our first report, will fundamentally reform grants administration in NSW,” Mr Shoebridge said. 

“These reforms are now urgent. The public purse remains open to continued abuse in the lead up to the next election and the people of NSW deserve a grants system that ensures public money is applied to do the greatest public good, not the greatest partisan advantage.”

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