Thursday, 14 May 2020
Australian Sports Commission Amendment (Ensuring a Level Playing Field) Bill 2020; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.
I table an explanatory memorandum and I seek to have the second reading speech incorporated into Hansard.
The speech read as follows
The Community Sport Infrastructure Grants program was launched on 2 August 2018. Former Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie's media release said that "the Coalition Government's program would focus on projects that enhanced community connectivity through sport and promoted inclusive environments for all". Of course, that's not what it focussed on at all. We now know, through important work by independent auditors, reporting by the media, and pursuit by Senate scrutiny, that this was a politicised process.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) concluded that "the Minister's Office had commenced its own assessment process to identify which applications should be awarded funding. The Minister's Office drew upon considerations other than those identified in the program guidelines, such as the location of projects, and also applied considerations that were inconsistent with the published guidelines". In particular, the ANAO found this parallel process "drew upon considerations other than the assessment criteria, such as project locations including Coalition 'marginal' electorates and 'targeted' electorates".
It was a fundamentally dishonest process run by the former Minister. The City of Salisbury in Western Australia spent over 80 hours on its application, and was rated highly by the Australian Sports Commission, but was not successful. As a representative from the City of Salisbury said, "You have an expectation that those guidelines are being applied by the authority making the assessment, and on that basis you are either successful or unsuccessful."
The Coalition's failure of transparency didn't end with the original sports rort. Since then, the Coalition has repeatedly refused to provide key material that would provide a clear account of the issues in question. Transparency would help ensure that the public knows what happened in the administration of this program. It would help ensure that there is clear accountability. It would help give Australians confidence that their government is being honest and frank. Cynically refusing to answer questions can only undermine trust and confidence, at a time when that is more critical than ever.
Among the many documents that would help provide a clear account of the administration of this program are:
This issue has already had an impact on communities. The Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants has heard evidence from many of the applicants who missed out under this program. There is not enough time to mention all of them. Each of them is different, because they come from different communities, woven into the fabric of the lives they impact and support.
I would like to draw attention to one in particular, the submission by the East Gippsland Roller Derby:
We are a club (and a sport) that has a focus on inclusion. We welcome people of all genders and ensure that LGBTQI+ people of all ages are included and valued in our club and activities … The majority of our skaters do not engage in other organised physical or social activities. Our club provides a home and a space to be welcomed for who you are …
Over a seven year period, Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby struggled to find a venue to operate our club and conduct our training from. We made 40+ separate enquiries each year since our inception and could not successfully secure a council or community provided space to train … We sought funds from a number of avenues to achieve our goals of renovation for safety, hygiene and use …
There remains no explanation of why funds were awarded to applicants with considerably lower ' gradings ' on applications, and for ten times the amount requested by our club. If the criteria and merit-based scoring are not relevant to the awarding of grants, it begs the question of why applicants need to perform against them.
There are many more stories. Unfortunately there isn't time enough to tell them all. But this lack of funding has a real, and devastating, impact on our communities. Sadly, the communities that missed out under this program 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.
As a councillor in the City of Maribyrnong, in a very safe seat, a decade ago my neighbours and my community were resigned to not receiving the funding for infrastructure our community needed. The Footscray pool was a really important community facility, but did not receive funding from the Commonwealth, and only a small portion of what was needed from the state government. Sadly, the Footscray pool was closed and the land sold off because government would not support them. Nothing has changed in the intervening years, in terms of communities not getting their fair share of support and funding because of politicised selection processes, when they don't live in marginal or targeted seats.
As well as the direct impact on communities, this has a devastating impact on our democracy. It tears at the trust that underpins our society, and it creates toxic distrust between government and the community. It is tragic that we have to restate this, but let me be clear about why this matters. A submission by the Accountability Round Table to the Senate Select Committee stated the obvious - that Members of Parliament:
… must put the public interest above all others, including political party interests. This principle requires that all Members, and their staff, who act under their authority, should act solely in terms of the public interest, with integrity, objectivity and impartiality.
Breaches of this standard matter for our democracy. They matter for the norms that govern our political life. As Professor Stuart Kells said to the Select Committee:
This episode shows that we can ' t take for granted that people will adhere to what we think are established norms. Another established norm is that if you ask senior ministers about an important government grant program that has run off the rails they will answer the question. So we need to prosecute and protect those norms …
His colleague, Stuart Hamilton said:
... at times like this, when we ' re facing things such as the bushfires over the summer or the coronavirus, we need—we absolutely need—our communities to have trust in our governments so that we can have order and we don ' t have chaos. I think that goes to the heart of what we ' re really trying to make the point of here: we need to make sure that everybody in the whole chain, from prime ministers to the person building the playground in the local community, knows their job and is accountable for their job. I think that when that happens we ' ll then have confidence and trust in organisations.
Fundamentally, this Coalition's failure to act transparently has ripped apart at the fabric of trust and norms that binds our political democracy together. Their actions leave in their wake a toxic distrust that eats and corrodes at our ability to function effectively. Their actions have undermined their ability to govern effectively in the midst of a crisis, as we've seen with the low levels of trust and the impact they've had on the COVID-19 response.
A clear, transparent accounting of this whole saga by the Coalition would be an important first step. It should include releasing all the documents they have hidden. It should include an apology, and making things right for those community groups that missed out. It would help restore trust, for them to acknowledge that they have clearly done the wrong thing by Australian community sports groups, and do the right thing. More than that, though, we need clear accountability. I want to acknowledge the important work of my colleague Senator Larissa Waters, and her very valuable contribution in passing a National Integrity Commission bill through this place.
Restoring that trust in institutions and public office is particularly important now, as we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Australia has had better outcomes than many other countries, and that is wonderful. But I want to acknowledge here that this has been a very costly period, for Australians around the country.
For the people who've lost loved ones to the disease.
For the families and communities where job losses have been devastating.
For the parents, families and carers who've been stretched to the limit looking after others.
For our LGBTIQ+ communities, who've shown such strength and resilience in facing down this multifaceted crisis, even though they're already facing significant challenges.
For people in regional and remote areas, who haven't had the same services or easy access as people living in cities, and who've carried on, day after day, dealing with drought, bushfires, and now the pandemic.
This hasn't been easy. Sadly, there is a long road from here, in the work that has to be done.
Community sports have been devastated by the pandemic. More than 900 public swimming pools, 2,400 soccer clubs and 608 gymnastics centres have been closed due to the crisis. Those closures are appropriate, and necessary, but they will have a real impact in the long term. There is an enormous amount of rebuilding to be done; but here, this Bill offers a simple opportunity to make a difference.
Investment by government in community sport infrastructure can make a real difference. It can help create jobs, in communities that have been devastated by this virus. It can help create the sporting infrastructure that is so necessary, as we work towards a healthier society after this crisis. Funding these projects can make a real difference to the clubs that missed out. Most importantly, taking this small step will show that we can correct the Coalition's mistakes, and start to restore faith in institutions and integrity to our democracy.
This is not enough; more scrutiny, more transparency, more accountability are needed. We must have transparency about this issue. But this Bill provides a clear step forward.
The Bill empowers the Australian Sports Commission to fund those applications that it recommended, but that were not funded under the Minister's parallel process. The Commission will not be opening a new funding round, but re-examining those applications that were recommended but not funded, to ensure they are still eligible. There is a special provision to recognise that some clubs may have found other funding sources, and started construction—that won't be a barrier to them receiving funding for the work that's remaining.
There is a transparency requirement, so that where Sport Australia doesn't provide funding, it must provide a reason to the recipient in writing.
Proposed subsection 57AA(8) specifically provides that the Minister will not interfere in this process.
We've seen much larger government expenditure than we're used to as part of the COVID-19 crisis, an appropriate response to a global pandemic. By those standards, the amounts that these clubs have applied for is, even in aggregate, relatively small. But it makes a huge difference to those clubs, and their communities. This Bill can make a real difference; to help community sports groups, to help restore trust in our democracy, and to provide much-needed investment stimulus in the face of the pandemic.
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.