Nearly eight out of every 10 government grants from a fund created to restore war memorials in NSW have been awarded to Coalition-held seats over six years.
NCA NewsWire can exclusively reveal 212 grants from the NSW Community War Memorials Fund, worth $1.220 million, were allocated to Coalition electorates between 2014 and mid-2020.
By comparison just 57 grants, worth $320,000, were awarded to non-government seats.
The data, released to Labor under freedom of information laws, shows what’s been called a “concerning trend” of government grants going overwhelmingly to Coalition-held districts.
It comes after a separate scandal in which a government grant scheme meant for merged councils was slammed as a slush fund after an analysis found 95 per cent of the funds went to government seats.
Opposition veterans spokesman Greg Warren said far too often electorates were being snubbed if they weren’t government-held seats.
“It’s a concerning trend we have seen occur with several other state government-run grants programs,” he said.
“I not only say this as shadow veterans minister but as a veteran as well: Veterans are not interested in party politics.
“They certainly don’t deserve having money allocated for their service used for political expediency.”
Helen Orchard, the secretary of a community organisation in a Labor-held seat on the Central Coast, applied for funding three years ago to restore a “crumbling” monument commemorating Terrigal nurse Sister Mary Katherine Curtain, who enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service for WWI.
The application for just over $4000 from the Community War Memorials Fund was denied by the selection committee due to limited funds.
“We’re a 100-year-old community association, we don’t get much funding. But you just have to keep hammering away,” Ms Orchard said.
“Our feeling is, if you’re not (Liberal seat) Terrigal, you get nothing.”
The NSW Community War Memorials Fund was set up in 2008 to conserve, repair and protect war memorials across the state. Applications for grants are assessed by a committee with people from three government departments – Public Works Advisory, Heritage NSW and the NSW Office for Veterans Affairs – and a representative from the Returned and Services League of Australia NSW Branch.
A Veterans Affairs Office spokesman said applications were “rigorously” assessed before the NSW Seniors and Veterans Minister had final approval of the committee’s recommendations.
Liberal MP Geoff Lee has been acting as the veterans MP since September last year after John Sidoti stepped aside from his ministerial posts after the Independent Commission Against Corruption began a preliminary investigation into a property deal he was involved in.
A spokesman for the Office of Veterans Affairs said it was not aware of any recommendation made by the committee that hadn’t been approved by the minister.
When asked why nearly 80 per cent of money from the war memorial fund was given to Coalition-held seats, Mr Lee issued a statement accusing Labor of politicising the issue.
“This is a disgraceful attempt by Labor to politicise our veteran communities in NSW,” he said.
“It is shameful to cast aspersions on the worthiness of successful projects of the Community War Memorials Fund. I challenge Labor to tell any NSW community that their war memorial was not a worthy recipient in securing funding to protect the monuments they have built to honour our fallen soldiers’ service and sacrifice for Australia.”
Mr Warren said the memorial restoration program hadn’t been adequately advertised to non-government MPs.
“Taxpayer money should be used based on the merits, not on what’s politically convenient for the government. How can anyone apply for a grant if they don’t even know it exists?” he said.
But Mr Lee defended the processes in place for assessing grant applications and advertising the fund.
“A stringent assessment process and statewide announcements ensure all communities have a fair go at accessing funding to conserve, repair and protect war memorials,” Mr Lee said.
The largest grant that can be awarded under the war memorial fund is $10,000, barring “extraordinary circumstances”.
Figures show three-quarters of grants totalling this amount went to Coalition seats, including Bungendore and District War Memorial in Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s electorate.
It received $10,000 in July to renovate a granite arch, a field of remembrance and a peace garden to honour veterans who served in Australian wars dating back to the Boer War.
One project – in the Liberal seat of Holsworthy – got more than double that.
The Afghanistan Commando Memorial at Holsworthy Barracks got $21,050 in late 2014 to complete the tribute to more than a dozen local service members who perished in that conflict.
Another monument in the Nationals seat of Myall Lakes was awarded five grants totalling $29,593 over the six years. The Nabiac War Memorial honours more than 200 local heroes of WWI and other conflicts.
Last Tuesday, Minister Lee announced a new round of successful grants, awarding $125,000 to 18 memorial restoration projects in the state.
Those included one each in the electorates of deputy Nationals leader Paul Toole and Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall.