Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has conceded government grant programs need to be more aware of "unconscious bias" after an auditor-general's report uncovered skewed funding amongst religious groups.
The audit found more than 80 per cent of grants provided under a Morrison government community safety program went to religious organisations, but that funding favoured Christian or Jewish groups.
Auditor-General Grant Hehir found that relatively few applications for grants under the Coalition's Safer Communities Fund were received from, and funding awarded to, groups identifying as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mr Hawke recognised there can be additional challenges faced by smaller community groups trying to engage with government programs.
“I think there can be unconscious bias in departments about issues in relation to different religions, I've spoken to my secretary about that," he said.
"We are constantly working to improve and train our officers about cultural awareness about all faiths, how they operate. Sometimes they're different structurally compared to Western religions.
"We can make some improvements there.”
The community safety fund was set up in 2016 and has seen eight selection processes across five rounds, with $184 million in grants awarded to 700 applicants. A sixth round is underway.
The program was set up to address crime and anti-social behaviour by funding crime prevention initiatives such as fixed and mobile security cameras and lighting.
In 2019, following the Christchurch terrorist attacks, they were expanded to protect schools, pre-schools and community organisations facing security risks associated with racial and religious intolerance.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report, released on Monday, found that overall, 84 per cent of funding went to religious organisations.
But it said that while the distribution of applications and funding approved was “reflective of the population of applications received” in terms of electorates, funds largely went to Jewish or Christian community organisations.
"Applications were received from, and consequently funding was largely awarded to, community organisations that identified as Jewish or Christian," it says.
"Relatively few applications were received from, and funding awarded to, community groups identifying as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh.
"Identified cultural groups were also not well represented in terms of either applications received or grant funding awarded."
The report found that "over the life of the program there have been 16 different cultural groups that have applied for funding that have not had any funding awarded: Filipino, Iraqi, Italian, Russian, Assyrian, Chinese, Congolese, Fujian, Indian, Iranian, Korean, Kurdish, Malaysian, Persian, Polish, Ukrainian."
The report sets out that “Commonwealth Grant Rules and Guidelines require that officials choose methods that will promote open, transparent and equitable access to grants".
But it states that a number of submissions received by the ANAO from the Hindu and Tamil communities raised issues with the accessibility of the grant funding opportunity, including "whether there is ‘favouritism towards European religions or communities’ and that ‘multicultural communities who do not have the resources to employ expensive consulting firms to help prepare submissions’.”
Surinder Jain, National Vice President of the Hindu Council of Australia, said on Tuesday the council welcomed ANAO's findings recognising the "adverse effect of missing out on funding by minority religions".
"It is not a level playing field for us on many counts," he said.
"We are not aware of funding opportunities and do not even know where to look. We have not had time to develop good networks with departments or with experts who can guide on how to fill out application forms for a successful outcome."
Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Council also said community groups had raised concerns directly with them about struggling to compete for competitive grants.
"Government must ensure smaller or less established ethnic communities and religious organisations have equitable access to major grant opportunities," he said.
"We need equitable access and support for multicultural communities for accessing these grants.
"This must include targeted information campaigns about funding opportunities and capacity building programs."
The audit had also cited a Hindu Council of Australia submission from November 2021, which said that "our communities constantly miss out on grants because the departments have a very bureaucratic, in fact almost a robotic, process for deciding on grants".
The group added that the community safety program was a welcome initiative, which did result in some larger Hindu temples receiving funding to increase their security.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said religious and cultural affiliation "did not form part of the merit selection process."
"The Department will work with the Grants Hub to increase awareness of grant opportunities to relevant groups to ensure that organisations from a diverse range of cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds are aware of grant opportunities," it said.
Audit finds grants 'skewed towards Coalition-held seats'
The audit also found that grants provided under the program were skewed towards Coalition-held seats, and often did not meet the guidelines.
It was overseen by then home affairs minister Peter Dutton, who is now the defence minister.
The audit found that except for one of the eight selection processes, the department "did not provide adequate information on the results of the assessment of each eligible application against the published merit criteria".
As well, for six selection processes, the department put forward "lists of candidate applications for inclusion on 'reserve' lists without any recommendation as to which of those should be selected, or why".
On one occasion, a minister approved a total of $199,570 in funding for two applications the department had not recommended on the basis of the assessment against the merit criteria.
The minister had visited the two applicants during a by-election and publicly announced they would be awarded funding.
On another occasion, an assistant minister awarded a total of $1.3 million to five applicants the department had advised him were unsuitable for funding.
The minister's decision was informed by visits he had undertaken to the applicants after applications for the round had closed.
According to the audit report, 59 per cent of total project locations in the first round of the scheme were in Coalition-held seats.
Labor seats accounted for 27 per cent of projection locations, and all but one of these were marginal.
For the five selection processes that involved an open call for applications, 53 per cent related to projects located solely in a Coalition-held electorate, with Labor seats comprising 33 per cent.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews responded to these concerns on Tuesday and defended the grant funding as following the required guidelines.
She added that: "there were instances the ministers did take specific responsibilities to make sure the programs were able to be supported in various communities."
The audit report found that while grant opportunity guidelines were appropriate, applications were not assessed fully in accordance with them.
"The guidelines have not clearly identified that it is the Department of Home Affairs that makes the funding recommendations, and over time the guidelines have become less clear on which minister would be making the grant funding decisions," the report said.
"For three of the selection processes, the minister identified in the guidelines as the decision-maker did not make the decisions."
The Auditor-General made four recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs and one to the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. All five recommendations were agreed to.
The Home Affairs department agreed to make a number of changes to the program's design and operation.
It said those who had received grants had reported "good outcomes" including an increase in perceptions of safety.