Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants; Report

5:58 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I present the interim report of the Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate adopt the recommendation in the report to order the production of a document.

Question agreed to.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

The Senate Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants tabled the interim report to update the Senate on its efforts to get to the bottom of what really went on in what has become known as the sports rorts scandal. From the very start of this inquiry in February this year, the government has been hindering the committee from getting to the bottom of this. They have found numerous ways of trying to stop this committee from getting to the bottom of what has been an outrageous abuse of public funds—whether it be the Gaetjens report, which they have not provided in full to the committee; the release of the spreadsheets they used in making their decisions; or the former Minister for Sport, Bridget McKenzie, not being prepared to front up and answer questions about her role in this, which I would have thought goes against the very basis of democratic principles. And we have just dealt with the public interest immunity claims they have been using to hide behind and not provide advice to this committee. I will return to that issue shortly.

This is an opportunity to remember what is at the heart of this inquiry. We know that there were many applications; hundreds of groups applied for funding under this program. The government tried to use this as an excuse to pork-barrel marginal and targeted seats in the lead-up to the 2019 election. But what that popularity really shows is that funding is needed for community sports infrastructure. Funding should be provided for those projects that give more Australians the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of sport. We know that hundreds of projects that Sport Australia assessed as highly meritorious missed out. As the election approached, the number of grants approved that weren't recommended by Sport Australia increased. It was 40 per cent in the first round, 70 per cent in the second round and 73 per cent in the final round as the election loomed. As the election got closer, the political decision-making around these grants became more heightened.

The Auditor-General found that the minister's office ran a parallel assessment process which drew upon considerations other than the assessment criteria, such as project locations including coalition marginal electorates and targeted electorates. That is from the Auditor-General's report itself. We also know that there were 136 emails between the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office about these grants, which shows you the political nature of this decision-making. This was being used as part of their election strategy—with versions of the colour-coded spreadsheets attached, which identified applications by electorate, zooming between the two offices. We've heard compelling evidence from those clubs that missed out. The Gippsland roller derby club, in the safe Nationals seat of Gippsland, missed out on funding despite attracting the highest Sport Australia merit score of 98 out of 100. The club provided evidence to us of their overwhelming need and how important it was that they received funding.

But the substance of this report today actually goes to the legal authority. We received evidence from many eminent legal scholars, and they didn't think there was legal authority for the minister to be the decision-maker. I want to talk briefly about some of that evidence. We heard from Emeritus Professor in Law Geoffrey Lindell. He suggested that the then minister, Bridget McKenzie, didn't have the legal authority to be authorising these grants. He said:

I have serious doubts as to whether she had that authority. I certainly couldn't find it. I went through all the various possible steps that could be invoked.

Professor Lindell also disagreed with what the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General had suggested—that the minister had a broad power to give directions. He said:

… as I've indicated that's a power that would've not supplanted individual decision-making. It was a power to give directions to practices and policy, not individual decision-making. I looked at the power of delegation that the commission has, and the minister is not mentioned amongst those.

We also had compelling evidence from Professor Twomey, an expert in constitutional law, who, like Professor Lindell, disagreed with the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General about the broad ministerial powers, suggesting section 11 gives the minister the power to direct the commission with respect to the policies and practices to be followed by the commission in the performance of its functions and the exercise of its powers. It does not permit the minister to exercise the commission's powers, being one of the key points. Further, Professor Twomey disagreed with the Prime Minister about the program guidelines, saying about Senator McKenzie as the decision-maker:

You can say that the guidelines said it, but the mere fact that the guidelines say it doesn't mean that the guidelines were valid. If the guidelines are inconsistent with the act, if the act doesn't give you the authority, then the guidelines are irrelevant.

We also heard from the then chair of Sport Australia, Mr John Wiley, who told the committee with regard to the legal advice:

Since the board in proper execution of its role has directors responsibilities and saw fit to obtain legal advice from a senior Queen's Counsel after this issue was raised, I would be happy to provide that opinion to this committee to you if you would like.

The committee subsequently agreed to accept that evidence in camera, and Sport Australia were willing to comply, but it was Minister Colbeck who wrote to the committee on 16 July claiming public interest immunity from those questions taken on notice on the grounds of legal professional privilege and prejudice to legal proceedings.

The minister's letter does not cover that Sport Australia was happy to provide the legal advice in camera to the committee. The committee has not been able to identify a previous case where a statutory officeholder has been willing to provide information, only to be blocked by the responsible minister. That is the substance of why we brought forward this interim report today. This committee feels that it is vital that we have access to that information. I'm pleased that the Senate has voted in favour of that today, and we look forward to the government meeting the directions of the Senate in its response to the motion we just voted on.


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