Auditor general finds no ‘clear basis’ for half of Safer Communities Fund grants

Show caption The Safer Communities Fund which falls under the responsibility of the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has been criticised by the auditor general. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP Australian politics Auditor general finds no ‘clear basis’ for half of Safer Communities Fund grants Five applicants deemed ‘ineligible’ under program’s guidelines received money Sarah Martin @msmarto Mon 14 Feb 2022 08.07 GMT Share on Facebook

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Grants awarded under the Coalition’s $184m Safer Communities Fund were “not appropriately informed by departmental briefings”, with more than half delivered without a “clear basis for the decision”, an auditor general’s report into the program has found.

The auditor general also found that a total of $1.12m in grant funding was paid out to five separate applicants despite them having projects deemed “ineligible” under the program’s guidelines.

The fund, which was under the responsibility of the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, was established in 2016 to combat crime and antisocial behaviour. It has paid out almost 700 grants to community organisations across eight selection processes, with more than 80% going to religious organisations.

While it was initially aimed at boosting the safety efforts of local councils and community organisations, the fund was expanded in response to the Christchurch terrorist attacks to include protecting schools, preschools and community organisations facing security risks “associated with racial or religious intolerance”.

The report found that Jewish and Christian groups were most likely to receive funding, with “relatively few” applications received from other religious groups.

Labor’s Kristina Keneally had asked the auditor general to examine the program after revelations that Dutton had asked his department to fast-track a proposal weeks after an industry body made a political donation.

The ABC’s 7.30 program reported last year that Dutton had slashed millions in grant funding from organisations that were strongly recommended by the department to improve community safety, with funds directed to projects that did not follow his department’s recommendations.

According to the report from auditor general Grant Hehir released on Monday, while largely “appropriate” grant opportunity guidelines for the program were in place, applications were not assessed fully in accordance with the guidelines.

“Funding decisions were not appropriately informed by departmental briefings and, for the majority of decisions, the basis for the decisions was not clearly recorded,” the report found.

“The recorded basis for the funding decisions did not adequately explain decision making around the award of partial funding to applications, the inclusion and ranking of applications on the reserve lists, or how information other than the results of the assessment process resulted in decisions to award funding.”

For 54% of approved applications involving 60% of approved funding, the basis for the funding decision was either not clearly recorded or did not address the eligibility requirements and merit criteria published in the grant opportunity guidelines.

While the department clearly identified applications it recommended be awarded for funding, the auditor general found that in all but one of the eight selection processes, “the department did not provide adequate information on the results of the assessment of each eligible application against the published merit criteria”.

For six selection processes, the department put forward lists of candidate applications for inclusion on “reserve” lists without any recommendation as to which of those should be selected, or why.

Another key shortcoming identified was with the application of a merit-based assessment, with a decision in one round to have a non-competitive selection approach failing to achieve the desired “rapid result”.

“The approach meant that applications with relatively low merit scores were approved for funding before applications that had achieved higher scores against the published criteria,” the audit found.

It also found that the merit criteria employed in the three most recent selection processes – all within the fifth round of the program – were “less comprehensive than had previously been employed”.

The report also found that after the second round of the program, some projects that were not eligible were eventually funded, with no examination of whether items of proposed expenditure were eligible under the grant opportunity guidelines.

Instead, this happened during the negotiation of grant agreements once applications were approved for funding meaning “it was not only eligible applications that proceeded to be assessed against the merit criteria”.

Even when the merit assessment criteria were applied, the standard of assessment was not to a “consistently appropriate standard” with shortcomings identified in how merit scores were used to recommend projects.

A total of five applications assessed as ineligible were approved for funding in two selection processes, with $1.12m in grant funding awarded to those five applications.

While the report found that grants were paid out in a way that “was reflective of the population of applications received” in terms of geographical areas and electorates, the audit also found that funding was largely awarded to Jewish and Christian groups.

“Applications were received from, and consequently funding was largely awarded to, community organisations that identified as Jewish or Christian.

“Relatively few applications were received from, and funding awarded to, community groups identifying as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh. Identified cultural groups were also not well represented in terms of either applications received or grant funding awarded.”

Keneally said the report confirmed the Safer Communities program “is yet another example of the Liberals spending taxpayer money like it’s Liberal party money.”

“There were many great projects funded through this program, but many missed out because this Liberal Government loves a rort,” Keneally said on Twitter.

The Australian National Audit Office report has made five recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs and the department of industry and science about how to improve the program, including a recommendation that the department outlines the “merits of eligible applications against the eligibility requirements, assessment criteria and any other factors relevant to decision making that were included in the grant opportunity guidelines”.

The departments have agreed to the recommendations.

Dutton and the Department of Home Affairs have been contacted for a response.