Who's telling porkies in Western Sydney?

The opposition says Labor has embarked on massive pork-barreling in Western Sydney. But is their policy much the same? And is the area actually eligible for 'regional' grants?

Who do you trust to develop regional Australia – Minister for the Regions Simon Crean, or would-be minister Barnaby Joyce?

Anyone who’s followed a fracas this week between Crean and independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor would most likely roll their eyes and reply “Joyce, of course”. Until now.

The stoush involved Windsor and Oakeshott realising that, following Julia Gillard’s much criticised tour of marginal seats in Western Sydney, that ‘region’ had  19 Regional Development Australia funding applications ‘advanced to the next stage’ while no other region had more than three.

If true, that would have been a shocking case of pork-barreling – the independents demanded a meeting with Crean, and promised to get to the bottom of the problem in their regular weekly meeting with the PM (one of the conditions they placed on helping her form government).

Trouble is, the information that had the independents so worked up was supplied by none other than shadow minister for the regions Barnaby Joyce – information his office says was taken from the RDA’s own website.

On closer examination, Joyce appears to be going on clear factual evidence – at the time of writing the full list of Western Sydney projects given the green light to “proceed to full application” does, indeed, number 19 on the RDA site.

On Tuesday the ABC quoted Joyce, in characteristically colourful style, slamming this perceived rort: "Most people would be forgiven for thinking that western Sydney is actually an urban area, not a regional area … The Regional Development Australia Fund was supposed to help regional areas and most people would think regional areas are not urban areas … Therefore regional areas are out in the country, therefore regional areas equal dark starry night, furry animals out on the road.”

Western Sydney houses nearly 10 per cent of the nation’s population, but while defined as one of Labor’s 55 ‘regions’ for the purposes of RDA funding it’s not the kind of region Oakeshott and Windsor had in mind when they extracted $10 billion of regional development promises from Gillard in return for helping form government. (Why Gillard put Crean first, September 2010)

However, Labor has two answers to this criticism.

First, some metro areas ‘serve’ regional areas – which is why roads around Perth airport are being upgraded. We can’t have all those fly-in-fly-out workers in traffic jams on bumpy bitumen. Second, some areas border the bit of the country with brighter stars and furry animals – the government uses Campbelltown in outerwest Sydney or Dandenong in south east Melbourne as examples. Hmm.

Okay, so ‘region’ has been a semantic problem from the start, with large parts of metropolitan Australia able to receive funding.

But the question remains – was Labor trying to pork barrel? On Friday both Oakeshott and Windsor issued statements saying that Joyce’s info was wrong, and that the PM and Crean had set their minds at rest that only three applications were, in fact, going forwards in the politically sensitive Western Sydney.

Windsor said: “… on investigation of the guidelines, Section 6.2 makes direct reference to the treatment of Greater Wester Sydney in Round 4  … Pending discussions with the New South Wales government on evolving governance arrangements regarding Greater Western Sydney, RDA Sydney [a ‘region’ that existed long before the Western Sydney RDA was set up a couple of weeks ago] will be able to consider expressions of interest from the Greater Western Sydney region and to nominate up to three EOIs to progress to full application.

“RDA Sydney will still nominate up to three EOIs from metropolitan Sydney … There were always going to be six projects put forward from Sydney for further assessment – three from RDA Sydney and three from a new RDA for Greater Western Sydney or on behalf of that area.”

So no pork then?

That question that needs to be answered is what the hell the list of 19 applications was doing on the RDA website with “proceed to full application” alongside each. That really did look and small a lot like pork – how many local councils celebrated with champagne when that list was put up, only to be told their application would not proceed (and do they even know yet?).

Rob Oakeshott later told Business Spectator that if Labor had intended to sneak the extra projects through, it was with the full knowledge of the leader of the Nationals in the NSW government, Andrew Stoner, who is responsible for signing the new Western Sydney ‘region’ deal with Canberra. If he knew the details, says Oakeshott, why is Joyce arguing there was some kind of conspiracy.

At the time of writing, Stoner’s office could not confirm what it know about the list of 19 – but it would appear to be Labor pork, or a big editing oversight on the RDA site. Watch for an RDA communications staffer to be hung out to dry on Monday.

Meanwhile, with both independents happy that Labor wasn’t trying anything nefarious, Oakeshott didn’t miss a chance to kick the party he once was a rising star in, the Nationals.

He said, of Joyce: “I would be disappointed if this was a regionally based MP trying to imply the $1.4 billion regional development structure was unworthy, not delivering, or was bad for place-based policy and regional development generally. The program established in this parliament is none of these and is, in my view, a transparent model of place-based community funding that we should see more of in government service delivery, rather than less of.

“Indeed, if the Liberal Party wants to do down the ‘Big Society’ model of David Cameron’s UK coalition, or if the National Party wants to do down the WA National Party ‘Royalties for Regions’ path, then they are endorsing the existing structure already in place.”

The ‘big society’ idea driving the UK’s Cameron government involves devolving power to regional bodies, with the national government primarily checking decisions for probity and conflict-of-interest types of issues.

This is also the approach taken in the Royalties for Regions program set up by West Australian Planning Minister Brendon Grylls, who has overseen something in the order of $1.4 billion in funds spend on regional WA, primarily in the Pilbara where he aims to develop both Karatha and Port Hedland into cities of 50,000 people or more.

It will be some time until we see the policy Joyce and the Coalition will take to the September 14 election, but Oakeshott says if anything, it will mainly be a “rebranding of what’s happening now”.

So who do you trust to put funds into the right areas to get regional Australia moving? If you believe Oakeshott, there’s no radical disagreement between any of the parties on how funding allocation should occur.

That’s yet to be seen – and so is the public flogging of the person who loaded up the RDA’s website with what appeared, at least for a time, to be a massive reallocation of money away from furry-animal-land to keep voters happy in Western Sydney.

We’ve either just seen massive pork-barreling averted, or a pretty grave editing oversight by the RDA.

And that leaves exactly no time to discuss what’s actually been funded in the regions so far. More on that another day.