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John Barilaro: NSW government hands report into office’s intervention in bushfire grants to Icac

<span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The New South Wales government has handed a scathing auditor general’s report into the $100m black summer bushfire recovery grants to the state’s corruption watchdog, amid calls for John Barilaro to explain his office’s involvement in the scheme.

A spokesperson for the premier, Dominic Perrottet, said the report had been passed to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) “for their information” after the opposition leader, Chris Minns, issued an ultimatum for Barilaro to offer an explanation.

Minns said the former deputy premier needed to disclose why his office created new rules for a fast-tracked black summer recovery grant scheme that in effect saw Labor electorates miss out entirely, as revealed in the report.

“If we don’t get answers today, and I mean in the next 24 hours, I do believe it needs to be referred to the Icac to determine what happened here,” Minns said on 2GB radio on Friday.

Related: Auditor general finds NSW Labor seats denied bushfire grants due to limit set by John Barilaro’s office

“It’s a basic fact of Australian life that if you’re in a disaster zone, and you need help from your own government, it will come – it doesn’t matter which party you voted for at the last election.”

The premier, Dominic Perrottet, has denied the suggestions the grants were examples of pork barrelling but insisted changes had been made since he became leader to make sure funding went where it needed to.

“The premier has already taken action that addresses the findings of the auditor general report,” a government spokesperson said on Friday evening.

“The Department of Premier and Cabinet has provided the auditor-general report to the Icac for their information.

“The Labor party should not politicise [the] Icac.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said all disaster relief needed to be distributed based on need and should not be politicised, pointing to the flooding in the northern rivers in early 2022 as another example of problematic grant allocations.

“We all have a responsibility to deliver where it’s needed, not to deliver politically.

The call from Minns was made after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Barilaro has put himself forward as the potential new head of ClubsNSW after Josh Landis was sacked earlier in the week over offensive comments about premier Dominic Perrottet’s “conservative Catholic gut”.

Barilaro will again be in the news on Monday as the parliamentary inquiry into his controversial appointment to a New York trade role is expected to hand down its report. Barilaro, the former trade minister, has insisted he did nothing wrong but withdrew from the role citing undue media attention.

The auditor general, Margaret Crawford, found the $541.8m bushfire recovery grants scheme lacked transparency and that although there was no designated role for Barilaro in handing out the grants, his office introduced a $1m threshold for projects, denying funding for anything less than that amount.

The Department of Regional NSW gave the then deputy premier’s office a list of 35 projects to be funded in a fast-tracked first round in 2020, listing their electorates. The introduced threshold effectively ruled out projects in areas held by the Labor party, the audit found.

The report said it was unclear why the department listed the electorates as they did not form part of the selection process, and that the role of Barilaro’s office in implementing a threshold “deviated from the guidelines”.

The program was jointly funded by the state and federal governments and administered by the state to pay for projects in bushfire-ravaged communities to create jobs and protect against future disasters.

Former NSW Liberal minister Andrew Constance felt “incredulous” reading the damming report and called for Barilaro to explain what happened in his office.

The former Bega MP said his heavily bushfire-affected community was still rebuilding after the fires.

“Accountability is really important for fire victims,” he told 2GB.

“You’ve got to remember this is against the backdrop of issues with charity money, we had issues with business grants … and now this.”

Related: ClubsNSW boss sacked after accusing Dominic Perrottet of acting on his ‘Catholic gut’

Facing an election in less than two months, Perrottet denied suggestions the grants were examples of pork barrelling but said he would consider making improvements to grant schemes.

“I know from my time as premier dealing with the flood response, we’ve ensured that every community across NSW got back on their feet as quickly as possible,” he said on Thursday.

“That’s been my focus – and previously during the bushfires – to allocate as much funds as possible to provide assistance.”

On Friday, he said changes had been made since he came to power “to ensure that the subjective nature of that would not come into play” and money went where it was most needed.

Barilaro had earlier rejected claims of pork barrelling during a 2021 parliamentary inquiry into the bushfire grants program, saying the first round focused on destroyed buildings, 90% of which were in Coalition seats.

Barilaro has been contacted for comment.

– Australia Associated Press contributed to this report