A REGIONAL grants program, established as part of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's deal with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to form government, has been given a tick by the Australian National Audit Office.
The report, which focused on the implementation of round one of the Regional Development Australia Fund, made three recommendations to improve the roll-out of future rounds.
Regional Development Minister Simon Crean has agreed to all of the recommendations (see fact box).
Overall, the ANAO found Regional Australia's management of the fund had been "effective".
But the report was highly critical of the high number of ineligible round one applications.
Of the 553 funding applications received in round one, 63% were deemed to be ineligible.
This higher than expected number - the department had estimated 20% of applications would be ineligible - did "not reflect well on the accessibility of the program to applicants", the ANAO found.
In the end 35 applicants were successful in securing almost $150 million.
An advisory panel had recommended 25 applications worth $135 million for funding, with Mr Crean approving all but four of those at a value of almost $100 million.
He approved a further 14 applications deemed by the panel as being "suitable for funding".
Interestingly, eight of the successful projects were located in major cities. These applicants had to demonstrate how their projects would "benefit the broader region, or other parts of regional Australia".
The ANAO found applicants from Labor Party-held seats were more successful, with an approval rate of 22%. Projects in Coalition and independent seats had a 14% success rate.
However, the report found this was "in large part ... because projects located in ALP-held electorates were more highly represented in the panel's funding recommendations to the minister".
Regardless, it was an aspect of the report seized upon by Opposition regional development spokesman Barnaby Joyce.
Senator Joyce was also highly critical of the fact the Geelong Football Club had been awarded $10 million to complete an upgrade of its home ground.
He said the advisory panel had ranked more than 60 applications ahead of the Geelong project, and claimed "vital projects" in regional Australia had been overlooked in favour of "Washington monuments".
"And those Washington monuments had a lot better chance if they were in a Labor seat. My advice to the Broken Hill stock transit centre is this, name themselves after a major AFL team, ask for a lot more money, move to a Labor seat and you have a much better chance than you currently have," Senator Joyce said.
But in welcoming the findings of the audit, Mr Crean took aim at the former Coalition government's Regional Partnerships program.
The audit found the RDAF was superior in a number of aspects.
"Comparing RDAF and the Coalition's rort-ridden Regional Partnerships program is a case of apples and oranges.
"RDAF represents a new funding model that is driven by community demands, backed by an independent assessment panel and underpinned by investment partnerships," Mr Crean said.
The RDAF was in the headlines last week amid reports funding for the remaining three rounds had been frozen. It was a suggestion described by Mr Crean as "scaremongering".
- Adopt a numerical rating scale for the merit assessment stage of future funding rounds to provide a more efficient and effective means of differentiating between eligible applications in terms of their overall claims against the published assessment criteria.
- That the department clearly outlines to decision-makers the basis on which it has been assessed whether each application represents value for money in the context of the published program guidelines and program objectives.
- That the department promotes a clear alignment between these assessments and the order of merit for funding recommendations.
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