Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020


Minister for Youth and Sport; Order for the Production of Documents

9:31 am

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

I table a response in relation to Senate order for the production of documents No. 430, moved by Senator Waters and Senator Rice and agreed to by the Senate on 11 February 2020. In relation to the order itself, the government requires more time to prepare a response to the order and intends to table its response to the Senate by no later than 3 pm on Monday 24 February 2020. As I outlined in the chamber earlier this week, it is not uncommon for governments of both persuasions to require additional time to conduct a thorough and exhaustive search for all relevant documents, especially given the order contains 11 separate subparagraphs. I thank the Senate.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind senators that we've agreed that this will be a 30-minute debate, with 10 minutes for each speaker.

9:32 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

Once again we see this government hiding in respect of the actions that it took on the so-called Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program. In a moment I'm going to report on something that I think you'll find quite shocking, Deputy President, because I know you've taken quite a bit of interest in these issues, particularly in your home state of Western Australia and some of the terrible things that have gone on there in respect of this program. But I want to go through what we know about the program that the Prime Minister and the former minister, Minister McKenzie, reported on 30 March last year.

Governments always want to make the most of these sorts of announcements, and it was a very big announcement, of $150 million. It came on top of an earlier announcement of $100 million, so it was almost a quarter of a billion dollars being announced in respect of sporting programs across the country. The Prime Minister was very, very keen to get this message out, as was the minister. You might recall—because, as I said, you've taken a bit of interest in this—that just about every single newspaper in the country got an advance notice about this report, and it was a front-page story on just about all of them: what a terrific job the Prime Minister and the Minister for Sport at the time were going to do in respect of women's changing rooms. Remember we heard the Prime Minister say he didn't want women having to change behind the sheds. He wanted proper, decent, modern facilities for them. I kept a copy of that press release, and it's good that I did, because, if you go to the online portal where this press release is meant to be kept by the government, it's not there. It has disappeared. The government overnight has taken down its press release in respect of that 30 March press conference.

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You're joking!

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

No! What do you make of that? A few weeks ago, when what we now know as 'sports rorts 1' first came out, what was the Prime Minister's defence? The Prime Minister's defence was, 'This is a terrific scheme, because it's providing new facilities for women's sport in this country.' It's a very admirable aim. As I've said time and again, we have no objection to these clubs getting that money. They've all behaved in a proper way. The guilty party here is not the sporting clubs for applying to improve their facilities; the guilty party here is the government for the way it has deceived the Australian people. But, more particularly, it's deceived the more than 2,000 clubs that applied for the first round of sports rorts 1.

In particular, all of those clubs who missed out on the first round—the first $100 million—and who saw this press release, which was a front page story in every newspaper in the country, thought they genuinely had a chance of getting that money. The reality was the government said the program was designed to improve facilities for women in this country so they had decent toilets and change rooms and didn't have to change behind the shed out the back, but less than 15 per cent of this money was spent on women's change rooms. Here's a program, and the government says, 'Vote for us, because we're going to fund all this positive infrastructure for women's sport.' How much did they spend on that? It was less than 15 per cent.

In your own state, Deputy President, I know that you're aware of this money going to swimming pools and not women's change rooms. There's nothing wrong with swimming pools; it's a good thing that kids—especially young kids—learn to swim. My grandson is learning at the moment to swim in a pool. But this government deceived sportspeople right across the country.

I made this point yesterday: hundreds of volunteers spent thousands of hours preparing these applications and thinking that this scheme was on the level. If this were such a good scheme, if the government were so proud of this scheme and if the government spent all its activity and time sending out press releases, talking to editors of newspapers around the country and getting them to write this story, why did the government overnight take this press release down?

One reason, we know, is that this money didn't go to improving female sporting facilities around the country. This money went overwhelmingly to marginal Liberal-held seats, marginal National Party seats and those seats which the government wanted to target from the Independents. I'd be embarrassed, too, if I were a prime minister who stood up and said, 'We're going to support women's change rooms in this country,' but all I did was spend the money on a couple of swimming pools in the seat of Corangamite and a couple of swimming pools in the seat of the Attorney-General, Mr Porter. That's where that money was spent.

I probably haven't spoken enough on this next particular point; I'll try to correct that now. One of the other defences that the government has been using is that all these people were eligible to get these grants. Well, that's not what the Auditor-General found. There is one line in the report that refers to the fact that, at the initial stage, all of the claims were eligible. But, by the time the money came to be distributed, that was not the case, from a close reading of the Auditor-General's report. And it's an excellent report, I have to say: detailed, forensic, and honest—something, of course, the government is not. I'd like to refer to some of the areas where, clearly, the grants that the government made were not eligible.

One of the criteria was that you couldn't have completed the project if you were applying for the money. Well, eight projects had been completed before the money arrived, before they signed their contracts—clearly, in breach of the guidelines. Four grants were received by clubs after the closing date of applications. After we saw that scandalous photograph of the big cheque at the Yankalilla bowls club, the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, said: 'I've got other clubs in my area that would also like to apply for this money. If you are handing out $100 million, I've got other clubs that want to do it.' She was told: 'Bad luck; applications have closed.' Four clubs were allowed to submit applications after the closing date.

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, really, Senator Ciccone. And guess what? Their applications were successful! Well, blow me down! Their applications were successful. Another five—quite contrary to the rules, of course—were clearly ineligible because they got their applications in too late, but that didn't seem to worry the government. Another five were allowed to come in and amend their applications—again, in breach of the rules. So it is an absolute scandal.

9:42 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the explanation given—or, really, the excuse made by Minister Colbeck, because once again the dog ate his homework! He's got a very hungry dog it seems! They want more time to comply with this order to produce documents about sports rorts No. 2. Well, we saw with sports rorts No. 1 that they wanted more time and then the answer was, 'You can't have the documents,' anyway. So I fully expect that, when we come back to this place on the next sitting day, Monday the 24th, with this extra time we'll still see the same 'we're not going to give you these documents' explanation, because this government just does not understand that democracies and executive governments should operate with integrity, transparency and accountability.

So just when you thought it was safe to go and play sport again—no. You've had sports rorts 1; here is sports rorts 2. Nobody is safe. If you're in a marginal electorate, you will be accosted by a Liberal MP trying to keep his or her seat and forcing some money on you for facilities that your local council might not even want, as has been reported on at least two occasions.

This time around, in sports rorts 2, the main issue is: it's not like they ignored the guidelines like they did in sports rorts 1; this time around they didn't even have any guidelines. They simply issued invitations, they hand-picked who would get this money and they then announced that before the election. I think sports rorts 2 is more egregious than sports rorts 1 because they didn't even have the decency to seek to develop guidelines for how to spend public money. This was an even more blatant rort than sports rorts No. 1. This government just continues to find new lows.

So there were no guidelines at all to be ignored, which is why we've asked for these documents today. We want to know if the department said: 'Guys, you really should have some guidelines. This is public money. These are not your personal funds to dispense in marginal seats to shore up your own power.' Naturally, they don't want to give us those documents. I fully expect that the Public Service would have done their job and advised that there should have been guidelines to disburse public money. We'll wait until Monday the 24th to be told that we can't have those documents.

This was invite only. The government said, 'We'd like you to apply for this money and then we'll announce that you're getting it if we're re-elected.' The other part of this OPD is how they decided who they hand-picked to apply for this money that they were unilaterally dishing out, without any guidelines and without an independent or fair process. I reckon there is another colour coded spreadsheet floating around. That's why we've asked for this production of documents. Did they do exactly the same thing? Maybe they recycled the same spreadsheet. They're not known for their support for recycling, but I reckon in this case they might have just re-used the same spreadsheet to work out who to invite to apply for this public money, to shore up their own flailing political stock. But, again, Minister Colbeck can't provide the documents to us because the dog ate his homework and he needs more time.

We saw yesterday a massive confrontation in the Senate, where the Senate insisted on documents being provided, and the government refused to do so. We lost the vote by the very narrowest margin, of course, because One Nation changed their minds, having presumably come to some kind of arrangement with the government that was no doubt mutually beneficial. Will we see that happen again next Monday? We'll all wait and see.

I want to come to the details of sports rorts 2. The money was meant to be for 'female facilities and water safety'. We saw the Prime Minister crow a lot about women having change rooms when playing sport. Fantastic—no-one disagrees that that's needed. But barely any of the money went to women's change rooms. In fact, 14 per cent of the money went on female changing facilities—14 per cent. Most of it went to swimming pools. And where were most of those swimming pools? What do you know, 60 per cent were in coalition marginal seats. Goodness me! You couldn't make this stuff up. So 60 per cent was going to buy election outcomes. They weren't going to female change rooms; they were going to pools, predominantly in coalition seats.

The largest single grant was $25 million for a pool in Attorney-General Christian Porter's marginal seat. He got another pool; that was another $5 million worth. So he's had 30 million bucks for swimming pools in his marginal seat. He remains the Attorney-General. In fact, as Attorney-General he should be working on developing a federal corruption watchdog. But clearly there has been some benefit to him and to his government from the absence of a federal corruption watchdog, because we have seen sports rorts 1 and sports rorts 2 roll out. He's still in his seat. He's presumably got two swimming pools underway. I don't know whether he's got any female change room facilities. Perhaps his seat got some of the 14 per cent of the funding that actually went to women's change rooms. Corangamite was the other electorate, which the government actually ended up losing, with a sort of cruel irony. It was $30 million for two pools in Corangamite, another marginal seat.

In two particular instances of swimming pool funding, the local council didn't want those facilities. I'm sure those councils had very meritorious and legitimate requests for other forms of support, but they didn't want swimming pools; they were forced upon them. So not only were there no guidelines, not only did the coalition handpick the seats where these facilities would be announced and the applicants to which this money would be provided but they didn't even get the consent of the handful of councils who were saying, 'We don't want a swimming pool; our footpaths are cracked,' or 'we need some help with public transport', 'we need some help with waste facilities', whatever it might be. No, it's a pool or nothing. So, with Coranga pool, the council found out days before the election. They hadn't applied for the funding, and the pool has since closed because it leaks. Torquay pool—

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

So does this government!

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

that's right; so does this government—received $20 million, but the council don't want a pool to go ahead because they're going to have to co-contribute and they haven't budgeted for it, and they're still undertaking a feasibility study to see if it's even a good investment.

So sports rorts 2 is even worse than sports rorts 1. They didn't even develop any guidelines about how public money would be allocated. They made massive promises for unwanted swimming pool infrastructure in marginal seats prior to the election. They talked it up as funding for female change rooms and then barely coughed up any dough for women and women's sport. We know the Prime Minister likes to occasionally remember that women exist, but he's never going to do anything to actually fix their predicament, as this morning's speech at the International Women's Day Breakfast proved.

I also saw this morning that former Liberal leader John Hewson has come out begging for a six-point plan to address transparency and accountability in government. In fact, all of those six points are Greens policies. I hope that this current government listens to its former leader. Chief amongst his asks was the need for a federal corruption watchdog. Sports rorts 1, sports rorts 2, all of the other rorts that we've seen, all of the other fingers in the pies, the vested interests and personal interests being prioritised ahead of the public interest—the list just keeps going on, and public trust in our democracy just keeps going down.

This government have been promising a federal corruption watchdog for 16 months. We've seen absolutely no evidence that there's been any progress, beyond a few weak principles that have been criticised for effectively facilitating ongoing corruption and for allowing cover-ups of ministerial misconduct. The Greens' bill—a bill for a strong corruption watchdog that could do the job, that could actually apply to members of parliament and clean up this corruption that's seemingly so typified by this government—passed the Senate, but the House wouldn't even let that come on for a vote. They are so afraid to have independent scrutiny because, frankly, I reckon they know there are more skeletons in the closet.

This is why the Senate has been insisting on the production of documents. The public deserve to know what's really going on here. Minister Colbeck says, 'We need a bit more time, sorry,' but we all know that we're not going to get those documents because whoever is leading the government in the chamber will say, 'That's public interest immunity,' or 'That's cabinet in confidence.' This government is the most secretive that Australia has ever had, and it's about time that they started realising that that is not only bad for them but bad for the country. We need some integrity in politics. We need a federal corruption watchdog.

9:52 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We heard Senator Colbeck turn up this morning and say that they haven't had enough time to get the documents together. It's an interesting contrast between them saying, 'Not enough time, sorry—we've got to go back and scrabble away for another fortnight,' and the speed that at which they actually distributed these grants before the election. This so-called Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream program had a budget line, which, amazingly enough, was all allocated before the election and, amazingly enough, the vast proportion of it was allocated in marginal seats. Yet, when they're just being asked to put the documentation on the table as to how these decisions were made and why the money ended up being spent where it was, they say, 'Sorry, we haven't got enough time to get that to you today.' As my colleague Senator Waters has just said, we're not holding our breath. Come 24 February, I am not expecting that we're going to get all that information that we have asked for in this very reasonable order for the production of documents.

This is a problem, because transparency matters. The community and this Senate having that information matters. Transparency matters for accountability. Transparency matters for democracy. In 1883, there was a journalist who wrote:

… there is only one way to get a democracy on its feet … and that is by keeping the public informed about what is going on. There is not a crime … there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy. Get these things out in the open, describe them, attack them, ridicule them in the press, and sooner or later public opinion will sweep them away.

This coalition's political corruption is living on because of the secrecy. We've had sports rorts 1, which they are going out of their way to cover up. We've got sports rorts 2, which we are discussing this morning and which they are going out of their way to cover up. But it's only a small fraction of information that this coalition government wants to keep hidden from the public. The information that we've been asking for, as well as all of the communication that we've asked for in these OPDs this morning, we've been discussing all week. The Gaetjens report, funnily enough, contradicts the very thorough report done by the Auditor-General. The Gaetjens report is what they used to make Minister McKenzie take a fall for a problem that is actually spread across this whole government.

I'm looking forward to having the Senate inquiry—the beginning of our sports rorts inquiry—this afternoon to be able to discuss it with the ANAO and perhaps ask them whether they've got any idea as to why their very thorough report has apparently been completely disregarded by Phil Gaetjens, who just happens to have been the Prime Minister's chief of staff before his current role. We will get the Gaetjens report eventually and it will show, I'm pretty sure, that the ANAO investigation was much more thorough and much more probing and much more accurate in its assessment of the rampant corruption in the awarding of those grants.

Other information that has not yet come to light, which will be able to be described and attacked and ridiculed in the press, is the legal advice they might have received as to whether the minister actually had the legal authority to allocate those grants at all. Then, of course, we want to see the full list of the grants that were rorted by the minister so that we can see who missed out so the coalition government could use the government's money as its own personal electoral slush fund. That goes across both of these sports rorts schemes. In the first one, they actually had guidelines which they decided they weren't going to follow—guidelines and criteria and a list of recommended projects from Sport Australia that they thought didn't suit their purposes. 'We're going to have a completely separate list to shore up our chances at the election.' In sports rorts 2, there weren't even any guidelines. It was even more blatant. There were no guidelines; it was just: 'Where do we want to spend money in order to try and get the community on side?'

We cannot let this stand. It's the duty of the Senate to hold this government accountable. Odgers sets it out well when it talks about the functions of the Senate. One of the Senate's roles is:

To probe and check the administration of the laws, to keep itself and the public informed, and to insist on ministerial accountability for the government's administration.

So, in refusing to provide this information, in insisting on a cover-up, the coalition is actually undermining democracy a second time. Of course, what we've heard the government say in numerous responses to this is that every party does it. They'll talk about the 1993-94 sports rorts scandal with Ros Kelly. That one featured a whiteboard; this one features the colour-coded spreadsheet. The truth is that the coalition was outraged by that scandal when it occurred. This is how John Howard, at the time the Manager of Opposition Business, described it. He said it was:

… the most appalling political corruption—I repeat, the most appalling political corruption—that I've seen in this parliament over the last 20 years. There has been nothing more pathetically blatant than the behaviour of this minister in handing around taxpayers' money without any trace of responsibility and without any guideline other than the maximum and at all times the total political convenience of the Australian Labor Party.

It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? Just swap parties. That was appalling political corruption then and this is appalling political corruption now. It's not good enough to just say, 'Oh, they do it too.' It's not good enough to just talk about another scandal that happened 20 years ago.

Under the female facilities and water safety stream of the program, the largest single grant was $25 million for the Attorney-General's marginal seat. Again, I remind you: this was a program that wasn't even open for applications. We have to reform the system. We have to end the use of grants as slush funds by the major parties to try and boost their election chances. I mean, it isn't just sports rorts or the newly reported sports rorts 2. In fact, under the current lack of rules, under the current corruption that is basically insidious across both major parties, we can look forward to sports rorts 3, sports rorts 4, sports rorts 5—going on indefinitely. It's not just sports, of course. The Regional Jobs and Investment Packages were also investigated by the ANAO, who found the ministerial panel approved only 28 per cent of the applications that had been recommended but approved 17 per cent of the applications that had not been recommended.

We need to reform this system. We need to have an independent anticorruption commission. We need to make sure that we really have the ability to investigate the corruption that is going on. It needs to be an anticorruption commission that's really got teeth, such as the one that the Greens have put forward, such as the one that was in the Greens bill that was passed by this Senate, which we tried to bring on for debate today. We know that different parties have got different priorities and we know that political parties should declare their priorities, and we support that. In fact, if the coalition had specifically announced a program targeting marginal electorates in the lead-up to the election, and that was what they said they were going to the election to do, they would have been within their rights to do that. It would have been upfront and honest: 'Look, we've got a sports program now that's going to specifically target marginal elections.' But they didn't do that, because there would have been an outcry if they had done that.

Instead, they lied to the Australian people and they told them that there was a level playing field for these grants programs. They lied to volunteers around the country—people who were spending their weekends, their evenings, writing grants; they lied to them. They lied because they said, 'If you spend all this time writing your grant applications, you will get funded.' They have lied to community sporting organisations around the country to make them believe that they've got the equal ability to get a grant when it's just not the case. The coalition government has made sure that there wasn't a level playing field. The coalition government was not engaging in sporting behaviour of fairness and the ability for different clubs, different teams, to access grants on a level playing field. We have to have the truth about this program and we must hold the government accountable for the lies that they have told the Australian public.

Debate adjourned.