Thursday, 27 February 2020
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program, Aged Care
That the Senate take note of the answers given by Senators Cormann and Colbeck to the questions asked by Senators Green, Chisholm, Kitching and Bilyk.
As was very clear from the evidence given by Sport Australia today in the hearing that we had before lunch, the noose is tightening around the Prime Minister's office. It's becoming very clear that the Prime Minister's office was up to its neck in both sports rorts 1 and sports rorts 2. What we now know, by a combination of persistence by the opposition and information being provided by a range of witnesses, is that 136 emails went into and out of the Prime Minister's office between the dates of 17 October 2018 and 11 April 2019.
You might recall, because I know you take quite a bit of interest in this, Madam Deputy President, that when this whole issue came up and it appeared that the Prime Minister's office was involved, and the Prime Minister himself was involved, the defence that he made—and he dismissed the claims—was he said he was just passing on representations.
Let's go back to those figures: 136 emails over that just over six-month period. During that time there were actually only 122 working days. We're in a situation where more than one email into and out of the Prime Minister's office occurred for the whole of that six months. I ask you, Madam Deputy President, is that simply passing on representations? No, Madam Deputy President, that's an active involvement—an active, consistent, persistent involvement—in the working out of where sports rorts 1 and sports rorts 2 would end.
I know Senator McKenzie has taken the fall and I know Senator Canavan followed in pretty quick succession. But the reality is, when you look at the factual circumstances here of those 136 emails over 122 days the Prime Minister's office was right up to its neck in all of this.
What else do we now know? We know about the 28 versions of sports rorts 1 that transpired between the—
Twenty-eight. I perhaps should repeat that number: 28 versions transpiring over that period of time between the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office. Again, I ask you to consider this, Madam Deputy President, is that simply passing on representations?
What we found out this morning was some other interesting information about the Prime Minister's role in all of this. We discovered that on a particular date, 11 April last year, that the parliament was prorogued—and, of course, the provisions of the caretaker conventions came in. When did the minister send in this information? Well, the minister sent her approval of tens of millions of dollars of sports rorts grants at 8.46 am on 11 April. That's an important time because, at 8.29 that morning, the Governor-General prorogued the parliament and the parliament was dissolved. Just over 15 minutes after the proroguing of parliament the minister signed the documents, so the caretaker conventions were in place. (Time expired)
Thanks, Madam Deputy President, for again letting us talk about the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program. This program rolled out over 600 grants to small community sports clubs across Australia. Let's not forget that the assessment process undertaken by the minister meant that Labor got more grant projects in their electorates than they would have otherwise have got. Let's talk about what the Leader of the Opposition actually said on Facebook on 18 March 2019:
I am pleased to announce that the restoration of the historic Dawn Fraser Baths has received a further boost with a $500,000 grant from Sport Australia.
That was from Mr Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Opposition. That was three weeks after the shadow Attorney-General first wrote to the ANAO raising concerns over the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program. So Labor loved this program just as much as we did, this program that got money to small community sports clubs and to our kids in areas across Australia. Labor electorates, Liberal electorates and National Party electorates across Australia benefited from this grant program.
Even on 20 July last year the Deputy Leader of the Opposition wrote on Facebook:
Pleased to support Geelong Soccer Club and celebrate a recent $500,000 announcement, that will fund an additional 2 new pitches. Soccer is alive and well in Geelong.
This just goes to show that there is no-one who can actually point to any of the successful recipients of this grant program and say, 'Actually they shouldn't get that money; they should give that money back'—not one of them. All of these project grants—it doesn't matter whether they went to Labor or Liberal electorates—have been welcomed by the communities which they went to. This program has definitely benefited, in my interest, regional Australia and it has benefited small community sporting clubs, which is exactly what our focus should be. It's about the grassroots. It's about getting money out there. It's about getting kids involved and playing.
Some of the other Labor seats that benefited included: Ballarat, with nine projects worth over $976,000; Bendigo, with five projects; Corio, with three projects; Franklin, with four projects; Fremantle, with four projects; Hindmarsh, with six projects; Hunter, with five projects; and Isaacs, with six projects. All of these projects possibly wouldn't have got funding had the minister relied purely on the Sport Australia ranking. In fact, if the minister relied on the Sport Australia ranking, 231 fewer projects would have received funding. That's 231 community sports organisations that would not have had funding to complete their projects, get kids active and provide facilities for their regional communities.
Let me just take the opportunity to remind those opposite, who are focused on the Prime Minister's engagement with the minister's office, that I would hope that my Prime Minister is talking to his ministers. The Auditor-General found that, while there were many representations coming into the minister's office about the grant funding program, our interest was in the decision-making process for the allocation of funding, and the reason we didn't go into the representations was that—and I quote—'I didn't feel that it was material for the decision-making process.' The Auditor-General himself did not find that the correspondence or representations from the Prime Minister's office— (Time expired)
I am very sad to see that the National Party senators have already left the chamber, no doubt to take themselves home on as early a flight as they can get.
I think there would be some of those sitting opposite in a corner who might be very sad about the recent turn of events, and they're still trying to come to grips with what's happened.
They lost a lot of ministers, Senator Farrell. They're feeling like the neglected country cousins. They're reduced to squabbling over the Deputy Speakership. We now know that, in the days following the Nationals' leadership spill, the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack—who we all know is a decent person and does a pretty good race call—lacks the authority to hold the farm together. He lobbied the Prime Minister to dole out $120,000, on top of the $400,000 already given, to keep the doors open for an aged-care facility in the electorate of one of his dwindling crew of allies, the member for Nicholls, Damian Drum. I can tell you that Nicholls is a very important agricultural area in Victoria. It has the Goulburn Valley in it. It has SPC fruits. I have visited there. What I loved about the various groups I met with in Shepparton was that they all informed Mr Drum, the member for Nicholls, that I was arriving, and he said that I was most welcome to come because he had no worries about holding his seat. Now he can see, perhaps, that of course he didn't have many worries, because he had all of this pork-barrelling lined up to dole out to his constituents. The pork barrel is so blatant that even some in the Nationals, who have proven over the years to not be averse to a bit of doling out of swine, have complained due process was not followed. Does this all answer the question of how much a vote inside the Nationals' party room is worth these days? It seems $500,000, give or take, is about the mark.
I ask those who might be here in the chamber at some point, or those in their offices, whether they would let themselves stop being trampled upon by their coalition partner, who might seem to only care about taking their votes on the floor. They don't seem to give much care and heed to their junior coalition partner otherwise. We needn't look further than the recent ambassadorial appointments. It's clear that the Liberal Party have successfully pushed out National Party former MPs, because, excluding Peter McGauran, the last National Party identity to be appointed an ambassador was the late Hon. Tim Fischer AC, who was appointed not by the Liberals but by Kevin Rudd's Labor government in 2008. We're better friends, perhaps, to the National Party than are the Liberal Party.
The $100 million sports rorts frenzy, which we now know was carefully coordinated from the Prime Minister's office, has already crystallised in the minds of the Australian public the rot that has become the modus operandi of this tired three-term government.
I encourage those opposite to stop propping up this 'Nigel no friends' Prime Minister. I especially encourage those with a sense of morality and history to search their consciousness before covering up for this Prime Minister's rorting and deception. History tells us that he won't be here for much longer. The Liberal Party might have changed its party room rules but everyone knows that once the member for Dickson, or the member for Pearce or the member for Kooyong has the numbers, they will use them. After all, it takes only 50 per cent plus one to change the party room rules.
Now, gather around while we have a little bit of a history lesson. We had Mr Morrison and his 'circle of six' supporters. Remember, they gathered around. Remember, he gave then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the hug of death? This is my Prime Minister, I'm ambitious for him. Remember that? Anyway, baboons have been on the Notice Paper today. Mr Morrison and his 'circle of six' will be stampeded into the dust by the rampaging baboons of the Liberal Left and Right, because Mr Morrison doesn't actually have a support base in his own party. In order to succeed with his hug of death of former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, the Prime Minister had to form a devil's pact with the moderates in his own party, as the conservative flank had coalesced behind— (Time expired)
Thank goodness the time has expired. In regard Damian Drum, the member who managed to advocate for an aged care home in his own electorate that had gone into voluntary administration and gone into liquidation, and managed to get some urgent funding to keep that facility open, with all of its associated ancillary services, that is exactly what I, as a senator, would expect from a member of the Lower House—advocating for his constituents. An aged care facility closing down—it's in administration and there are a lot of vulnerable people in a very difficult situation, and the local member advocates for those vulnerable people and delivers funding to that establishment and keeps it open so that it can continue providing aged care services and health services to his constituents. That is exactly why we're here—to deliver those sorts of services in that crisis situation to our constituents. That's the reason we're here. That's not pork barrelling. That's discharging your obligations to your communities and your constituents. Moving onto the sports grants program—and I note Senator O'Farrell is here—
If the senator is going to go down that track, he could at least describe me by my correct name, which is Senator Farrell. He is obviously confusing me with the new ambassador to India, who is in fact an O'Farrell. Could you please direct him to call me by my correct name.
I certainly have heard Senator Farrell's contribution and I apologise profusely to Senator Farrell. One hundred and thirty-six emails in 122 days. Is this the smoking gun those opposite think they have found? Let's see what the Auditor-General said, because you can't have it both ways. You can't on the one hand rely on what the Auditor-General said in some places but then in other places disregard what he said. This is what the Auditor-General's office said with respect to the representations:
… we would not agree that there was a clear causal relationship between local members of parliament saying 'These are the priority projects in my electorate', those inputs to the process and the ones being approved.
That is what the Auditor-General's office actually said. That is the actual evidence. You can't pick and choose. If the evidence doesn't suit you, it's still evidence; it's still there; it's still probative.
In another case, this is what the Auditor-General's office said:
Yes … It wasn't the case that we could see that those which came, if I could say, directly from the Prime Minister's office—
And this is the 136 emails. The supposed smoking gun Senator Farrell sees, which isn't there, which is a mirage—
were necessarily any more successful than those which came from a local member direct to the minister's office rather than through the Prime Minister's office.
Nothing to see here. What there is to see, when you look—and during question time I actually did look at the successful grants in my home state of Queensland—grants were awarded across the breadth and width of my great home state of Queensland. Mount Isa, held by the honourable Bob Katter, in the independent seat of Kennedy, got a grant. Palm Island, one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas in my home state of Queensland, was successful in getting a grant—and Ipswich, in the federal seat of Blair, and Logan, in the federal seat of Rankin, and projects in the federal seats of Moreton and in Oxley. I was in fact invited to the opening of one of these successful grant infrastructure projects in the federal seat of Oxley. I declined, because I knew I didn't want to take away from the efforts of the Labor member for Oxley, Milton Dick, who'd worked so hard to secure that project in the federal Labor seat of Oxley.
The fact of the matter is that before the then minister intervened and did what ministers should do in terms of making final decisions in accordance with the guidelines, only 26 per cent of the grants were going to Labor-held seats. After the minister had exercised her discretion and considered what was right, what was wrong and where the money would be best directed, 34 per cent went to Labor seats—an improvement of eight per cent. And I'm sure the constituents in each and every one of those seats are thankful.
What we've seen, now that this sports rorts committee has been meeting, is that every day, in a new way, the protection racket they've been trying to build around the Prime Minister and his office gets dismantled. We've had only a couple of hearings now, and we're getting so much new information about how this goes to the direct involvement of the Prime Minister and his office in this program. That's why they're getting outraged, obviously—because they know that this is creeping up on them and that they are going to be held accountable for it.
It started with the report from the audit office. Then we had the resignation of Senator McKenzie, after the ANAO report had come down. Senator McKenzie didn't resign because of the content of the ANAO report. She resigned because of a failure to declare a conflict of interest in the granting of a grant to a gun club. The PM said that all projects funded were eligible. But the ANAO evidence was that 43 per cent of them were not. The PM said that what his office did was provide representation. Well, we know from the evidence that there were 136 emails, 28 versions of the colour coded spreadsheet and a breach of caretaker conventions, and twice the Australian Sports Commission raised concerns with the minister's office about the way they were conducting this.
Why were they in such a rush to get this program done? This actually goes to the heart of the determination and the way they were using this sports grant. At the end of the day, it all had to do with their re-election. That is what their motivation was in terms of how they used this sports grants program. It was all designed to boost their chances of re-election. The damning evidence is that, in round one, 41 per cent of the projects were not endorsed by Sports Australia. In round two, 70 per cent of the projects were not endorsed by Sports Australia. And then in round three, in the shadows of the election campaign, 73 per cent of projects were not endorsed by Sports Australia.
So, we know that the political nature of this decision-making by the minister was that the closer it got to the election the more they favoured those decisions that were going to boost their electoral chances. That was actually the whole genesis of this, and it goes to the heart of the Prime Minister's involvement as well. There's no doubt that this sports grant program was part of their re-election strategy. That's why the Prime Minister's office was so keen to know what was going on. That's why Minister McKenzie was so keen to ensure that the projects that were approved were in those marginal and target seats. Why else would she add the column to the spreadsheet, other than to identify those marginal and target seats?
When they sent the spreadsheet back to Sports Australia they said, 'We'll just delete that column'. How clever was that? They said, 'We'll just delete that column before we send it back to Sports Australia.' But we know that the decisions that the minister was making was based on that target and marginal seat list, because they were determined to boost their election chances.
We know that they were running a re-election strategy. They gave up on running a government; all they were doing was running a re-election strategy. They were using this sports grants program at the heart of that strategy. That is what they were up to. They were using this program to fund targeted marginal seats. We know that Sports Australia did not recommend up to 73 per cent in the last round that went for ministerial approval.
They're treating the Australian people so arrogantly because they can't admit the truth. Disregarding the thorough independent assessment from Sports Australia to fund their own projects is beneficial to them politically. The reason they can't admit that is, of course, it goes to the very legitimacy of this government. The fact that they were using this program as they were, as part of their re-election strategy, goes to the very legitimacy of this government. That's why they need to treat the Australian people with contempt. The government treat with contempt those mums, dads and other volunteers who put so much effort into putting forward submissions to get project funding and were rejected by this government even if they did score a high recommendation from Sports Australia. They're completely disregarding the will of the Senate over multiple orders for the production of documents and other things that would assist us in getting to the bottom of this. The government are treating that with contempt by providing redacted copies and not enabling us to identify who those community groups and who those people were who put in so much effort to be rejected by this government. We will continue to put the blowtorch on them, because the Australian people deserve better. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.