Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants; Report

5:58 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the interim report of the Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate adopt the recommendation in the report to order the production of a document.

Question agreed to.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

The Senate Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants tabled the interim report to update the Senate on its efforts to get to the bottom of what really went on in what has become known as the sports rorts scandal. From the very start of this inquiry in February this year, the government has been hindering the committee from getting to the bottom of this. They have found numerous ways of trying to stop this committee from getting to the bottom of what has been an outrageous abuse of public funds—whether it be the Gaetjens report, which they have not provided in full to the committee; the release of the spreadsheets they used in making their decisions; or the former Minister for Sport, Bridget McKenzie, not being prepared to front up and answer questions about her role in this, which I would have thought goes against the very basis of democratic principles. And we have just dealt with the public interest immunity claims they have been using to hide behind and not provide advice to this committee. I will return to that issue shortly.

This is an opportunity to remember what is at the heart of this inquiry. We know that there were many applications; hundreds of groups applied for funding under this program. The government tried to use this as an excuse to pork-barrel marginal and targeted seats in the lead-up to the 2019 election. But what that popularity really shows is that funding is needed for community sports infrastructure. Funding should be provided for those projects that give more Australians the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of sport. We know that hundreds of projects that Sport Australia assessed as highly meritorious missed out. As the election approached, the number of grants approved that weren't recommended by Sport Australia increased. It was 40 per cent in the first round, 70 per cent in the second round and 73 per cent in the final round as the election loomed. As the election got closer, the political decision-making around these grants became more heightened.

The Auditor-General found that the minister's office ran a parallel assessment process which drew upon considerations other than the assessment criteria, such as project locations including coalition marginal electorates and targeted electorates. That is from the Auditor-General's report itself. We also know that there were 136 emails between the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office about these grants, which shows you the political nature of this decision-making. This was being used as part of their election strategy—with versions of the colour-coded spreadsheets attached, which identified applications by electorate, zooming between the two offices. We've heard compelling evidence from those clubs that missed out. The Gippsland roller derby club, in the safe Nationals seat of Gippsland, missed out on funding despite attracting the highest Sport Australia merit score of 98 out of 100. The club provided evidence to us of their overwhelming need and how important it was that they received funding.

But the substance of this report today actually goes to the legal authority. We received evidence from many eminent legal scholars, and they didn't think there was legal authority for the minister to be the decision-maker. I want to talk briefly about some of that evidence. We heard from Emeritus Professor in Law Geoffrey Lindell. He suggested that the then minister, Bridget McKenzie, didn't have the legal authority to be authorising these grants. He said:

I have serious doubts as to whether she had that authority. I certainly couldn't find it. I went through all the various possible steps that could be invoked.

Professor Lindell also disagreed with what the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General had suggested—that the minister had a broad power to give directions. He said:

… as I've indicated that's a power that would've not supplanted individual decision-making. It was a power to give directions to practices and policy, not individual decision-making. I looked at the power of delegation that the commission has, and the minister is not mentioned amongst those.

We also had compelling evidence from Professor Twomey, an expert in constitutional law, who, like Professor Lindell, disagreed with the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General about the broad ministerial powers, suggesting section 11 gives the minister the power to direct the commission with respect to the policies and practices to be followed by the commission in the performance of its functions and the exercise of its powers. It does not permit the minister to exercise the commission's powers, being one of the key points. Further, Professor Twomey disagreed with the Prime Minister about the program guidelines, saying about Senator McKenzie as the decision-maker:

You can say that the guidelines said it, but the mere fact that the guidelines say it doesn't mean that the guidelines were valid. If the guidelines are inconsistent with the act, if the act doesn't give you the authority, then the guidelines are irrelevant.

We also heard from the then chair of Sport Australia, Mr John Wiley, who told the committee with regard to the legal advice:

Since the board in proper execution of its role has directors responsibilities and saw fit to obtain legal advice from a senior Queen's Counsel after this issue was raised, I would be happy to provide that opinion to this committee to you if you would like.

The committee subsequently agreed to accept that evidence in camera, and Sport Australia were willing to comply, but it was Minister Colbeck who wrote to the committee on 16 July claiming public interest immunity from those questions taken on notice on the grounds of legal professional privilege and prejudice to legal proceedings.

The minister's letter does not cover that Sport Australia was happy to provide the legal advice in camera to the committee. The committee has not been able to identify a previous case where a statutory officeholder has been willing to provide information, only to be blocked by the responsible minister. That is the substance of why we brought forward this interim report today. This committee feels that it is vital that we have access to that information. I'm pleased that the Senate has voted in favour of that today, and we look forward to the government meeting the directions of the Senate in its response to the motion we just voted on.

6:06 pm

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

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.

6:14 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll keep my comments on this interim report brief. The report sets out the reasons the committee does not accept this public interest immunity claim by the minister. It is incredibly important that such public interest immunity claims are scrutinised and not used by ministers to avoid public transparency and accountability. The minister has not made out the grounds for the public interest immunity claim, and the Senate needs to consider whether it is in the public interest to allow the minister to claim immunity over these documents. I am pleased that the Senate has resolved to ask the minister for these documents.

This PI claim and this inquiry—this entire, disgraceful sports rorts saga—demonstrate the lengths to which Prime Minister Scott Morrison will go to avoid transparency and accountability. This advice that we have asked for goes to the legal authority of the minister to make these decisions, and it is crucial that the committee considers the advice. But we have been denied these documents, even on a confidential basis. The Auditor-General found that there was no legal authority for the minister to make these decisions. Instead of acting on the report of the Auditor-General, the Prime Minister sought two separate inquiries of his own—the Gaetjens report and advice from the Attorney-General—but we haven't received those documents either.

The Gaetjens report, funnily enough, says, 'Nothing to see here.' And the advice from the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, says: 'Yes, it's all good. There was legal basis, but we're not going to share that legal advice with you.' The question really is: why all this secrecy? Why won't this government come clean? Why won't the former minister appear before the committee? Why won't they give us the documents that we desperately need? There's one answer to that: 136 emails. There were 136 emails between the Prime Minister's office and the minister's office discussing this program—passing the spreadsheet back and forth, requests from the minister's office to change decisions to make sure that applications got through. And, as the Auditor-General report found, in one instance the Prime Minister's office said, 'We need to be able to crosscheck against our lists and also be able to pull out individual projects to coordinate announcements with material from CCHQ.' This was all about getting the government re-elected. It was all the Prime Minister's idea, and the transparency and accountability that the government has shown is all about protecting the Prime Minister.

The Senate has a job to do, and the government needs to give the Senate the information that it needs. That is the job the government should do so that this inquiry can table a final report—one the public can read and use to understand exactly what happened in this circumstance.

6:17 pm

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

I'd like to speak on this motion to take note of the interim report. I start by congratulating the work the committee has done in starting to get to the bottom of what went on in the sports rorts affair. In particular, I thank my two Senate colleagues on the committee, Senator Chisholm and Senator Green, who've worked tirelessly and thoroughly to try and get to the bottom of what continues to be a terrible scandal for this government.

This committee has been trying to get to the bottom of this matter in the time of COVID. That's given the government some cover, which it has used to try and deflect from the inquiries. I say to the government and, in particular, the Prime Minister that we're not giving up here. We are going to continue to make inquiries. This afternoon the Senate passed a very clear and deliberate motion that makes it very clear that you can't hide behind a public immunity screen—that the Senate expects all of the documents which the minister, up until this point in time, has been trying to hide will be delivered to the committee so that the committee can continue its inquiries and get to the truth of what has happened here.

I'd like to go back to where this whole sorry tale started. It started with the Auditor-General's determination on this matter. A lot of people talk about the need for an ICAC in this country. Well, I can tell you that, in the absence of an ICAC, some excellent work has been done by the Auditor-General and, in particular, Mr Brian Boyd and his team in the Auditor-General's office, and they have been punished for that by losing some important funding. It was their original report that started this inquiry when they made this comment after reviewing the early documentation that was available, the so-called colour-coded spreadsheet. The report said it:

… reflected the approach documented by the Minister's Office of focusing on 'marginal' electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be 'targeted' by the Coalition at the 2019 Election.

Now, you might say to yourself, 'Why has the government been so keen not to release all of the documentation that has gone between the then minister's office and the Prime Minister's office?' Well, I think we know the answer. The answer's in that little description there by the Auditor-General. What we'll discover, when we finally get to see that documentation, is that what the Auditor-General said was going on was in fact backed up by all of those emails.

This wasn't just an ordinary pork-barrelling exercise; this was pork-barrelling on an industrial scale. And we still haven't had a satisfactory answer from the Prime Minister about his role in this process. We're meant to believe that former minister Senator McKenzie—who, unfortunately, took the fall for this—worked this whole scheme out by herself in her own office. We'd like to be able to test that proposition, if she'd do us the courtesy of turning up to the committee. She has so far decided that she's not going to do that, but we're hopeful that she'll come and tell us exactly what's happened in order to provide some transparency to the Australian people and, more particularly, to sporting clubs around the country who were diddled by this sports rorts process.

In the meantime, the Senate has made it very clear that all of the documentation that has gone between the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office needs to be released so that the committee can make a thorough investigation, and, in that way, we're going to get to the bottom of what has gone on here. And if the government think that the COVID pandemic is going to give them cover for escaping responsibility and transparency for what has gone on here, they will have to have another think. We will get to the bottom of this. We will get this information. The former minister will, I think, ultimately give evidence to the committee, and we will get to the bottom of it.

During the course of this process, we had the advantage of all of those clubs who scored extremely well in this process, clubs that took, on face value, the criteria that the government had originally set out in order to proceed with these grants. We heard from those clubs and we heard what they said about it. We heard about the disappointment that these volunteers—volunteers who had spent hours and hours and hours preparing an application which, right from the start—

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Farrell, would you please resume your seat? The time for the debate has expired.

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

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Debate interrupted.