Singleton Council pocketed a $6 million grant for a saleyard upgrade, and now it's selling it off

A SINGLETON Council plan to sell off its livestock saleyards while work continues on a $7.76 million NSW Government-funded upgrade has thrown a spotlight on the Nationals and the controversy-plagued Resources for Regions fund.

Only days after NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro launched an extraordinary attack on Coalition partner and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – urging him to give Australians a “Christmas gift” by resigning - the Nationals’ control of the $300 million Resources for Regions fund is under renewed fire because of the proposed Singleton sale. 

The council pocketed $6 million from Resources for Regions for the upgrade despite questions about whether the saleyards met funding guidelines in a competitive process against other mining-affected parts of the state. Resources for Regions is meant to fund “infrastructure across health, water, road, education, tourism and CBD renewals”, according to the NSW Government.

“Singleton received $6 million to upgrade infrastructure unrelated to mining and now they’re going to flog it off, while Lake Macquarie and Cessnock have missed out for the life of Resources for Regions despite bearing the direct impacts of mining,” Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said.

“I would think the money Singleton has received should be returned to the fund if they’re going to be selling it off, and allocated to another mining-affected area.”

Singleton Council called for expressions of interest on a possible saleyards sale only months after upgrade work started in April, and before work is completed in February. The upgrade coincides with a major upgrade of Upper Hunter Council-owned Scone saleyards using $2.8 million of federal funds announced by senior Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce.

The sale news prompted a group of Labor MPs, including Ms Washington, to renew calls for the Audit Office of NSW to investigate about $250 million in Resources for Regions allocations since 2012 after writing to the Audit Office in January.

The Newcastle Herald understands the Audit Office has already contacted a number of councils in receipt of Resources for Regions funding afterHerald reports in January revealed National Party seats received the bulk of grants in some rounds, while mining-affected areas like Lake Macquarie have not received a cent.

The marginal seat of Barwon, held by Nationals Party MP Kevin Humphries since 2007, has received $57.45 million from Resources for Regions, despite its three mining areas of Cobar, Narrabri and Broken Hill generating only a fraction of the royalties contributed by the Upper Hunter. Singleton has received $35.3 million and Muswellbrook $53.9 million. The two areas contribute 70 per cent of the state’s mining royalties.

Resources for Regions was established after a 2011 NSW Government report found Singleton and Muswellbrook were significantly under-funded by the government compared with other mining areas, including Cobar, Narrabri and Broken Hill. The Upper Hunter councils expected the fund to address the historic under-funding.

“It has become an appalling pork-barrelling exercise, and certainly an external audit is warranted to uncover many of the unfairnesses in the process,” Ms Washington said.

Labor’s Duty MLC for the Hunter, Mick Veitch, said taxpayers were entitled to know the longer-term intentions of organisations that applied for government funding.

“A council seeking funding should be asking ‘Is it ok to spend money on this when we’re going to sell it’?” Mr Veitch said.

He said an “increasingly desperate” National Party was “seeking to buy its way out of its parlous political situation”.

He backed a full audit of Resources for Regions, and accused the National Party of “turning pork barrelling into an art form”.

“The accountability and transparency around this fund has always been fluid at best,” Mr Veitch said.

A spokesperson for Mr Barilaro said the Audit Office regularly conducted audits of government programs and “we look forward to its findings”.

“Given most regional seats are held by the government, there is no 'pork barreling' but rather delivering for regional NSW,” the spokesperson said.