Thursday, 13 February 2020
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development; Order for the Production of Documents
I table a response in relation to Senate order for production of documents No. 431, moved by Senator Waters and Senator Rice, agreed by the Senate on 11 February 2020. As the Minister representing the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, I am advised that the government requires more time to prepare a response to this order for production and intends to table its response to the Senate by no later than 3 pm on Monday 24 February 2020.
I rise to take note of the response—or lack of response, I should say—of Senator Cash in respect of the applications to release these documents. I guess it's pretty interesting to note that months and months and months ago, when the Auditor-General started his investigation into sports rorts 1—I know we're talking here about sports rorts 2—he had no difficulty getting access to all of the documents which the government now seeks to delay tabling before this Senate.
Madam Acting Deputy President Kitching, I think you might have been sitting in the Senate chamber earlier when I was referring to the press release that went out in respect of sports rorts 2. I indicated that, as part of the government's cover-up mentality, spin mentality, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, the press release that had been on the government's website spruiking what we now know to be a fraudulent exercise of rorting and pork-barrelling had disappeared. The government was so proud of this announcement at the time, but, when we went to look it up today, it had disappeared. Well, I can report this to you, Madam Deputy President: somebody in the Prime Minister's office is watching the Senate—it comes as a bit of a surprise that they take any notice of us at all—and guess what? It's back up. It's back on the government's website.
When I spoke on this earlier this morning, about 45 minutes ago, the government, as part of their cover-up, their lack of transparency, their lack of accountability, had taken it off the website, so none of these sports clubs anywhere in the country could look it up and see just how badly they were rorted by this government. But somebody in the Prime Minister's office must have thought: 'Hm, maybe this is not such a good idea. Maybe this looks like a cover-up.' You know what they say about these things: it's not the original act that gets you into trouble; it's the cover-up. Why do we know that? Watergate. Former President Nixon got into trouble for the cover-up, not the original act. Somebody in the Prime Minister's office has been watching and obviously has a little bit of common sense, and they've put that press release back up. The government might say: 'It was there all the time. Senator Farrell was wrong.' But we did take a precaution and we snapped it when it wasn't there. So we can produce some physical evidence, if need be, of the fact that the government had taken it down.
But what this whole exercise, even this morning, shows is that this government doesn't really care for sporting clubs and sporting men and women in this country. In particular, it doesn't care for women's sport, because, if it did, it wouldn't be treating Australians as mugs and wouldn't be treating Australian sports men and women this way. It would be showing them some respect. Everything that the government has done in this whole tawdry saga has exposed the lack of respect it has for sports men and women in this country.
Later on this afternoon—you'll like this one, Madam Acting Deputy President—the new minister is introducing a bill to change the way in which clubs are expected to respond to cheating in sport. They call it the Sport Integrity bill. This bill is intended to say to sports men and women in this country: 'We demand that you improve your integrity. We demand that you apply additional conditions to the way in which you perform your sporting activities because we want integrity in sport.'
You're dead right—I'll take that interjection. What a joke! This government is not serious about improving integrity in sports for sports men and women, because if it were, it would show some integrity itself and we would have heard from Senator Cash this morning, producing all the documents which the Senate has requested her to do and we would have got the information that the Australian people are demanding.
We will get this information whether the government likes it or not. This afternoon, we start a Senate inquiry into what we'll call sports rorts 1. We'll start that inquiry and—whether they like it or not—the government, ultimately, will be required by the Senate to produce all of this information that they're currently hiding from us, and, more importantly, hiding from the Australian people. We will get to see the list of 400 clubs whose proposals Sport Australia declared were the best in the country. We'll get to see that. We'll get to see the list of the more than 2,000 clubs whose volunteers spent hours preparing and weeks working on these grant applications—we'll get to see that list of the more than 2,000 clubs who were done in the eye by this government who cheated them. This afternoon, the government are saying to sportspeople: 'We expect you to lift your game. We demand integrity from you.' But the government themselves show no integrity. There is nothing that relates to integrity about this government.
As I say, bit by bit, drip by drip, we will get this information, and the Australian people will see just how dishonest this government have been in the awarding of these grants. People will see just how dishonestly the government have treated all of these clubs right around the country in relation to their applications and all the hard work that people have done. They'll ultimately see that the government are not interested in sportsmen and sportswomen, not interested in the clubs that so many people work for and volunteer for, and not interested in improving sporting arrangements in this country. The government are only interested in one thing and one thing alone: getting themselves re-elected. This whole system was biased against the sporting clubs, who thought they were on a level playing field, that this was honest and that, if they did the right thing and their applications were the best, they would be rewarded with better sporting facilities. That simply did not happen on this occasion.
The government simply said: 'Okay, where do we need to win a seat? Here's $500,000'. And, if you had a terrific proposal in a safe Labor seat or, for that matter, a safe Liberal seat, you never had a chance. I've heard what the Prime Minister has said, and one of his other defences is: 'We actually increased the number of grants that went to Labor seats'. Well, that may or may not be true; I'm not sure whether it is. But we do know that, where the government did put money into a Labor seat, it was on the border of one of the marginal seats that they were trying to win—so at least 50 per cent of the sporting participants in that particular club would have lived in the marginal seat that the government was trying to win. So even there they can't be honest with the Australian people. Even there they can't say to the Australian people: 'Yes, we rorted that as well'.
That the Senate take note of the explanation.
The explanation has been given, this time, by Minister Cash representing then Minister McCormack, who was the responsible minister at the time of these pre-election sports rorts 2 grants. And what do you know? The dog ate Minister McCormack's homework as well as Minister Colbeck's homework! It seems they've got quite a bevy of canines eating all of these very revealing documents that they are desperate for nobody to see. Once again, they've asked for more time, and, once again, we're expecting that when that time comes, we will be told that: 'Actually no; sorry, you can't have those documents because they are deeply embarrassing to our government.' This is what we saw happen yesterday with the Senate's request for the Gaetjens report, the report which somehow magically found that there was nothing to see, and that there had been no sports rorts—even though the independent Auditor-General said clearly this was a massive rort. Those are my words, not his, but they were the implications of the findings of that report.
So here we are again. The Senate is begging the government to show some transparency, to show some guts and to have some decency, but the government actually doesn't have the standards, the moral compass, to say, 'We're going to put these documents in the public domain.' The Senate is forcing the government to reveal these documents and the government's not even coming at that request. So here we are again, a government in complete disarray, rort after rort piling up, and they're desperately trying to pull up the shutters and hope that somehow they can protect themselves from actual scrutiny, but it's not working.
As I said before, we asked for these documents because we actually want to get to the bottom of sports rorts number 2. We already know that in sports rorts number 1 guidelines were ignored, money was dished out and there was a colour coded spreadsheet for which marginal seat would get which grant to shore up this government's flailing political stocks. With sports rorts 2, there weren't even any guidelines at all; the government just hand-picked where that money was going to go, sometimes against the wishes of the local councils in those areas. We have sought documents to examine: did anybody advise the government? Did our frank and fearless public service do their job and say, 'You really should have some guidelines?' We are confident that the department would have issued such advice, and the public deserve to see whether this government simply, once again, ignored that frank and fearless advice. But we'll have to wait and see whether we get that material. Don't hold your breath, folks.
We also wanted to know what the communications were between outgoing Minister McCormack, who was responsible for this program at the time, pre-election, and incoming Minister Colbeck, who is now responsible for the administration of this program. We want to know what they said to each other about how on earth they were going to explain this second instalment of sports rorts. How can they possibly explain the dishing out of public money in marginal seats, right before an election, with no guidelines, with no application process and with a purported focus on female sports change room facilities that actually just ended up being swimming pools in coalition seats? That correspondence would be very interesting indeed, and no doubt that's why the government has asked for more time. It's also, no doubt, why they will eventually say, 'Oh, that's cabinet in confidence,' or, 'That public interest immunity,' as we saw happen earlier in the week.
The other thing that we asked was: was there any correspondence about deciding who would be asked to apply for this unsought public largess for swimming pools in marginal seats? We want to know: is there another colour coded spreadsheet that dictates where this public money is going to go for political purposes? In sports rorts 1, it was leaked to the media that the Prime Minister's office played an integral role in directing where that money would go, despite the fact that then Minister McKenzie took the fall for that decision. We've asked this time around: what role did the Prime Minister or his office have in this sports rorts 2 saga?' We know he was there, grinning like he does, announcing this money. Did he, in fact, hand-pick where this money was going to go? We know a fish rots from the top. We saw that the Prime Minister was implicated in sports rorts 1. We want to know if he's behind sports rorts 2 as well. That's another reason why we are not expecting to see those documents provided by this government, which does not know how to govern in a transparent or accountable way.
Here we are again. The Senate is doing the government's job for it—trying to insist on some standards of transparency and accountability and the disclosure of important documents, and the government is once again trying to say: 'That's the Canberra bubble. There's nothing to see. This was all about women having somewhere to get changed to play sport.' I wish it had been, but we know 13 per cent of that money ended up actually going to women's change rooms and 60 per cent of it went to swimming pools in coalition seats.
It's not just the Greens and the opposition crossbench and the Australian public that are outraged by this. In fact, former Liberal leader John Hewson has also had a lot to say about sports rorts 1 and 2. In the papers this morning he says:
Voters, certainly, are sick to death of it. The National Party carries on, seeing such programs as slush funds for the Nationals' interest, not the national interest, blithely disregarding the erosion of their standing in regional Australia.
He finishes by saying:
Being elected to politics is not a ticket to put your snout in the funding trough.
Never has a truer word been spoken, but I wonder if the current Liberal leadership team will actually listen to the wise words of their former party leader on the need for integrity. Again, don't hold your breath, folks.
But we have seen very interesting political intervention by the new Nationals deputy leader. David Littleproud has conceded that the partisan allocation of projects by party representation in marginal seats is 'not the best way to do it,' despite the fact that the Prime Minister has repeatedly defended the program. It's all very politically interesting—the dynamics between the coalition. And we're all watching with horror at the way the parties are eating themselves up, because this parliament should be dealing with real issues that affect and assist every day Australians. But these guys are too busy fighting amongst themselves to get anything done. They didn't have a policy platform before the election; they just dished out public funds for swimming pools, desperate to buy some credibility and buy some support, and now they're eating themselves up.
A former Sports Commission employee and sports policy historian, Mr Greg Blood, has said
My concern is that election-funding announcements are bypassing the need for evidence-based decision-making in regards to community sport facilities. … Funding facilities without an assessment of need is unlikely to provide optimal outcomes.
That's a very measured way of describing the fact that this money was not sought, that there was no application process, that there were no guidelines. It was just a $150 million slush fund for this government to buy their way back into government. They tried to say that it was for women. What a surprise that women didn't end up getting almost any of the money! Fourteen per cent is all they got. And the whole sorry saga just continues to roll on.
Here we have the Senate, once again, trying to insist on some very basic standards of accountable government and, once again, this government's refusing to oblige. I think it thinks it's getting away with it, but the sentiment out there in the community is that they are fed up with this government being so self-invested. They are fed up with vested interests running this government. They're fed up with the government caring more about themselves and who's running their bunch of people than actually dealing with the issues that ordinary Australians are struggling with. The community wants better funding for schools and hospitals. They want clean energy. They want an increase in Newstart. The Prime Minister can find $150 million for swimming pools but he can't find any money to actually help people—to reduce out-of-pocket school fees for people at public schools, to increase Newstart. The priorities of this government are just hideous and they continue to be exposed on rort after rort. Well, the public have absolutely had it with this government, and we here at the Greens cannot wait for the next election. This kind of conduct deserves to be roundly meted out with condemnation to the opposition benches for hopefully a very, very long time.
We've heard Senator Cash again denying the Senate the information that we need to see, denying the Australian public the information that we need to see, which would shine a spotlight on what's been going on in the corrupt practices of this government. We need to see this information so the Australian public can see the extent of the rorting, the corruption, the attempt to buy seats at the last election that really occurred. Similarly, we've been told that the government just need more time to get their information together. I'm not holding my breath that we'll actually see the information. Maybe we'll be surprised, in which case that would be great, but I do not expect that we're going to see the detail of that information come in a fortnight's time.
This is important. When people look at governments around the world they are rightly critical of governments and of parties and of underperforming democracies or other underperforming political systems where they see elections being bought, where they see corruption going on. The Australian public don't like to believe that that's the case here. The Australian public actually want to believe that our democracy is pretty fair—that decisions do get made on an accountable, transparent, fair basis and that elections aren't bought. Yet the evidence that we are waiting on today and the stink of what is going on today show that we are just as susceptible here in Australia as those under some of the other governments around the world which are clearly corrupt. That's not how it should be. It's not what the Australian public have signed up for. They want to see elections being carried out on a completely level playing field. They don't want to see votes being bought, whether it's by these sporting programs or whether it's by massive donations such as those made by Clive Palmer to try to buy the election for this government.
This is of critical importance. It's why we need to have an anticorruption watchdog: to actually be able to uncover these sorts of nefarious activities. As to this $150 million female facilities and water safety program that we are not, as yet, getting information about: what we know about it is that it was announced in the 2019 budget. There was the expectation—from sports people and from local governments and other organisations that run sporting facilities around the country—that there was going to be a grant application process. You'd think that would've been a sensible way of going, in order to be able to assess one application against another, to see what would be the best use of scarce taxpayers' funds, scarce government funds. So it is announced in the 2019 budget, and then we find that, suddenly, two months before the election, there is this flurry of grants being announced—just so that those voters, particularly in those marginal seats, could ostensibly be impressed and say, 'Oh look—the government's delivering me a pool, so I've got to vote for them!'
The analysis of where this money was spent is really telling. There was 58.5 per cent that was spent in marginal seats, and, when you add in other seats that the government was trying to hang on to—in particular, Kooyong and Farrer—that rises to 73 per cent. This, I repeat, was without any application process; it was just largesse that was put into those seats. In total, $111 million out of $150 million was spent in marginal seats.
We have talked about what the facilities were that went to the beneficiaries of this money, but I just want to lay them out, because it really tells the story. We've got the biggest grant, $25 million, being spent on the Ellenbrook pool in the marginal seat of Pearce. Then we have the marginal seat of Corangamite, which, in the end, was lost by Sarah Henderson, but the government was going all out to try to maintain that seat for the government: $20 million was spent on a pool in Torquay; $10 million was spent on the Bellarine aquatic centre. It wasn't because the community was actually saying: 'These are the projects that we must have.' No. It was because of the sense that these would be big, splashy projects that they could announce, to get in the headlines and encourage people to vote for the Liberal Party. We had $20 million spent on the South Perth aquatic centre. Another half a million dollars was spent at the Broulee surf club in the seat of Gilmore, which Warren Mundine was trying to win. Then of course we had the situation of the tidal pool at Port Macquarie where the local council didn't even know about the application. It wasn't a priority of the council. It was actually a small group of residents who thought this was a good idea. And that small group of residents, when they heard they'd got the funding, didn't even know about it. I mean, this isn't good, accountable, transparent decision-making. This is just throwing money randomly, wildly, at marginal seats to try and win votes.
What I want to focus on now is this. The people and the communities that got this money and these facilities are not going to complain about it, because no-one actually complains about that; they say: 'All right. We've got $20 million for a pool. Well, that's nice. Why not. Let's have a new pool.' What I want to talk about is the communities that missed out. Sadly, they are the communities that have often been missing out for years—for decades. They are often also the communities where you have people that could really benefit from investment in community infrastructure.
I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. They are safe Labor seats. For my whole life they've been safe Labor seats. I was a councillor in the City of Maribyrnong. It was in the electorate of Gellibrand, which is one of the safest Labor seats in the country. When I talk to my neighbours and my community, they are resigned to the fact that they know that this is what's going on. They know that as people who live in safe Labor seats—it's the same, in fact, if you live in a safe National Party seat—they are never going to be the focus of suddenly having $20 million thrown at them for a pool. They know that and are resigned to that fact: 'Oh well, we live in a safe Labor seat. We're going to get nothing.' This isn't how it should be. It is corrupt. It is really corrupt decision-making, but that is the case.
Before I was on Maribyrnong council I was one of the key organisers of the campaign to save the Footscray pool. Footscray has been a wonderful diverse community for all of its life. It's got a huge socioeconomic mix, with a lot of people who are really struggling. The Footscray pool was a really important community facility, but could we get any money from the state or federal governments to try to upgrade this pool? We got a pittance from the state government and absolutely nothing from the federal government of the time. Sadly, the Footscray pool ended up closing and the land being sold off. The only way that council could see its way to maintaining an aquatic facility in Maribyrnong was to do a dodgy deal with the private sector to sell off a bit of public land to get some money from Sussan Corporation, who ran Highpoint Shopping Centre, and build the pool next to Highpoint. It was seen as being a win-win, because Sussan got this new attractor of lots of people right next to Highpoint Shopping Centre, but it was not the right option, and it was an option that the council was forced into only because there was no money available from the state and federal governments to invest in an aquatic centre in a region that desperately needed it.
It's the same in the case of the outer western suburbs and the outer south-eastern suburbs—suburbs like Dandenong and Springvale—which just don't have $20 million thrown at them. It's not right. It's not the way that we should be allocating precious government money.
I am hoping that at the end of this process, this saga of uncovering all the corruption that's going on under sports rorts 1 and 2, there will be a realisation that this is got to end. Not only do we need an anticorruption watchdog with teeth, but we need to completely reform and reconsider how these grants projects work. We've actually got an example of a grant allocation funding mechanism that works really well. It's the Australia Council, which gives out money to arts projects. The problem with the Australia Council is that it doesn't have enough money to give out, but, basically, the arts organisations know that it has a fair and objective funding process and that if you put your applications in and they meet the criteria they'll get funded. That's the sort of process that we need so that we can have objective decision-making, with projects being assessed against criteria to get rid of this rorting, to get rid of this buying of votes, to get rid of this corruption in the system. I call upon both the Labor and Liberal parties to join the Greens in actually working for the community in this way rather than working for their own perverse electoral interests.
Question agreed to.