Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants; Report
I also wish to take note of this report. It is almost a year since the ANAO's explosive report revealed the corruption in the administration of the sports grants program. The report revealed that a huge amount of public money was being used by this government to try to buy votes. What's been going on since then has been attempt after attempt by this government to cover up, to not share with the Senate the information that lays out how the use of public funds to try to win votes to win the last election took place. In particular, as is outlined in this report, the fact is that there was no legal authority for the minister to be directing how this money was spent. This is clearly a case of an absolutely appalling misuse of public funds.
We've got a situation where ordinary Australians, volunteers with sports clubs, were offered an opportunity to apply for a grant for their sports club. The guidelines were set out by Sport Australia, and so they thought that if they put in all of their information, it would be assessed according to the guidelines that Sport Australia had set out. That's what they committed to doing and, as we heard during the inquiry undertaken into this matter, many clubs have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours putting their information together. We also know that Sport Australia did do their assessment and they ranked all of the various applications—indeed, the program was oversubscribed because there is a great need for more investment in sporting infrastructure in Australia—but the government didn't like the answers that turned up. The government didn't like the fact that Sport Australia would actually apply grants on merit, because that did not suit their political purposes; it didn't suit their pork-barrelling purposes. Then Minister McKenzie intervened—in fact, it wasn't just the minister intervening; the intervention was clearly done in collusion with the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party. We have got the evidence of the hundreds of emails that went between the then minister's office and the Prime Minister's office, and we know that there was a meeting with the Prime Minister that the minister, Senator McKenzie, had, which basically said: 'What can we deliver? If we increase the size of this grants program, how many projects in our targeted seats can we deliver on?' It was clearly a program that was being rorted by the government. They were trying to get projects that the government thought were going to help them win the election.
There it is, in terms of the documents that we have been able to cobble together. But there have been critical bits of evidence that the government has been sitting on—that the then minister has been sitting on. The then minister, Senator McKenzie, has refused to appear before our committee. She needs to come out of witness protection. She needs to front up to our committee and actually lay out what happened in her office and the negotiations and the discussions between her office and the Prime Minister's office that led to these outrageous happenings occurring. The other bit of information that today's interim report goes to is that it is pretty clear from the legal evidence that she actually didn't even have the authority to be intervening in this way.
Sport Australia is meant to be an independent statutory authority. It's meant to have control over its decisions on where these grants are spent. We cannot find any legal authority as to how the minister actually had the ability to say where the money was going to be spent. In fact, we had Sport Australia being willing to share with us, on a confidential basis, their legal advice. But suddenly, there's intervention and the government said, 'No, you can't share that legal advice with the committee.' Since then they have been sitting on that legal advice.
Today's OPD that we have just passed is basically giving the government the opportunity, once again, to present that legal advice to us, so that the community can see what happened and so that the extent of the lack of legal authority can be laid clear. I'm also hoping that then minister, Senator McKenzie, will see and realise that she really needs to come out of witness protection. She really needs to appear before our committee. We need to have the information that has been hidden from us there in full view so that the extent of the rorts, the extent of the corruption and the extent of the misuse of public money can be laid out for us. That is only fair for ordinary Australians and these sporting clubs right across the country to keep faith with them. As it stands at the moment, they know that they did their bit—they put in their hundreds of hours to put their grant applications together for very worthy infrastructure projects—and that they were done over. They need to know what happened, and then we need to get a commitment that those clubs that should have been funded will be funded.
I've had a private senator's bill in this place that I'm very happy to bring on for debate again to say that those clubs that scored highly, including clubs like the Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby, which scored the top amount in terms of Sport Australia's criteria—they scored 98 out of 100, but missed out on funding—deserve to be funded. Until those clubs are funded, there will just continue to be a stink about this. There is this realisation that there is corruption that is riddled through this government and that there is no fairness: that basically, if you're associated with the government, if you're living in a marginal or targeted seat, then you get special treatment. Otherwise, you just get left behind. Nothing is on merit. Nothing is to do with fairness.
People expect better of their politicians, but the cynicism that people have about politics is because of this type of behaviour. I am concerned about that increasing level of cynicism and lack of trust in government. Until we get to the bottom of this, so that we can lay it out and have an acknowledgement and an apology from this government about what has gone on, we will continue to pursue this. We are not giving up on it. The government is hoping that we will just give up on it, because of attrition and because they just keep on saying, 'No, no, no.' But we're not giving up, because this goes to the heart of our democracy.