Senate debates

Thursday, 3 December 2020


Australian Sports Commission, Sport Australia, Naval Shipbuilding; Order for the Production of Documents

4:35 pm

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business) Share this | | Hansard source

I table documents relating to orders for production of documents concerning Australian Sports Commission and Sport Australia legal advice and Australia's sovereign naval shipbuilding capacity.

4:36 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

I take note of the Australian Sports Commission and Sport Australia legal advice documents. I've just received a copy of the minister's response through Mr Moneghetti, who is the acting chair. Despite a decision of the Senate earlier this week, when the interim report was handed to the Senate on the shocking circumstances of what is known as the sports rorts affair, the government continues to refuse to come clean or act transparently with respect to this matter, despite the fact that they've had ample opportunity to do so and despite the fact that the clear, unequivocal will of the Senate is that they do so.

I think it's important to go back in time a little bit and look at what has transpired here. It started out with the Australian National Audit Office conducting a very thorough audit into the government's handling of the so-called Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program, which is what we know as the sports rorts program. The Auditor-General told the Senate inquiry that his office had spent more 3,800 hours of work on this inquiry. Importantly, he found:

… there was no legal authority evident to the ANAO under which the Minister was able to be the approver of CSIG program grants to be paid from the money of Sport Australia.

This inquiry's been going on for some time. The government all along has thought that, under the cover of the pandemic, they would escape scrutiny for what they did with this sports rorts program. Can I tell you this: they're not going to escape that inquiry. The Australian people want some answers about what went on here and, more particularly, the sports community wants to know what's gone on here.

More particularly still, all of those sporting organisations and all of those volunteers who originally looked at the criteria for the grants of applications—heaps and heaps and heaps of money that was supposed to go to sporting clubs—and toiled away, night after night, thought they were entering a legitimate process the government had set up to distribute the sporting grants. Of course, we have no problem with sporting organisations getting money, but the government misled the Australian people and misled all of these volunteers in these sporting clubs into thinking that there would be a legitimate process for the distribution of these funds, that if they had a good project and scored well with Sport Australia they were going to be awarded one of these grants. That's what they thought. But what did we find out? Nothing of the sort occurred. In fact, as each tranche of money was handed out by then Minister McKenzie, the situation got worse and worse—fewer clubs with high scores were awarded and the government handed this money over to their own marginal seats or seats that they were trying to win. The whole process was a fraud right from the start. At no stage was there any legitimacy to this process. All of those hardworking volunteers now know that's what happened here.

Why are we discussing this here today? Earlier in the year, when Sport Australia came along and gave some evidence, they said us to: 'You tell us what documents you want and we'll hand them over. We've got nothing to hide. The government has nothing to hide about this. We want to explain what we've done.' They said that at one of the first hearings into this matter. But what's happened? We haven't got the documents, despite the inquiry now going for nine months or so and despite a decision earlier this week of the Senate making it very clear that the Senate wants to see these documents. We still haven't got the documents. This response by Sport Australia today makes it clear we're still not going to get them.

As I said before, the government think that they can hide from scrutiny during the pandemic and that somehow the issue of what they did throughout this process to disrespect sporting clubs in this country and the way that they handed out the funds is going to go away. Let me tell you: the issue is not going to go away. Somebody is going to have to take responsibility for this. I know Senator McKenzie has gone, but it's very clear from what we found out about her role in this process that she was just doing the bidding of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was giving the instructions as to exactly where these funds had to go so as to maximise the chances of the government being re-elected. That is what it was all about. It was nothing to do with the fair distribution of sporting funds to Australian sporting clubs. It had everything to do with the re-election of this government.

We're not going to leave it here. The government might think that they can hide from scrutiny by sending in letters like the one that they've given to the Senate late on a Thursday afternoon, but we are not going to leave it there. We have two very fine senators on the job—Senator Chisholm and Senator Green—and they've got their teeth into this. I can see Senator Cash smiling because she knows that what I'm saying is true. Even Senator Brockman is smiling, I can see. He's got his head down for a change. They know that the Australian people are going to find out what went on here.

I think I know what went on here. I think poor old Senator McKenzie simply did what she was instructed to do by the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's Office to win the last election. There was no accountability and no transparency. The government, like most other people, thought they were going to lose the election and so it didn't really matter and they were never going to be held responsible for the irresponsible way in which they distributed these funds. But those two senators I mentioned, two very fine senators from Queensland, are on the job. They've got their teeth into this issue. If the government thinks that, somehow, by delaying this process they will escape scrutiny, then they have another think coming, because, day by day, week by week and month by month, we will continue to pursue this government to get the truth out of what has gone on here.

At the end of the day, the government will have to explain why they so abused this grants process—

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

It's public money!

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

Yes, it's public money.

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

It's taxpayers' money.

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

They thought it was their own money!

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

That's right.

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

That's what happened, Senator Ciccone. They thought this money was theirs.

Senator Pratt interjecting

Yes, that's right, Senator Pratt. They thought they could hand this money out in such a way—

Senator Pratt interjecting

No, it wasn't their money; they treated it like—

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

They thought it was from their own bank accounts.

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

I couldn't have said it better myself, Senator Ciccone. I hope you're going to make a contribution to this debate—

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

Yes, I will.

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

They knew that this money was not theirs. They're trying to hide, but let me tell them that there's no place to hide. We're going to track down what went on here, and one day the Australian people are going to find out exactly what went on.

4:46 pm

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

I rise to make a contribution to this debate with regard to this ministerial statement, particularly the letter that's been tabled today by the minister relating to the refusal by the government, via Sport Australia, to comply with a request from the Senate to provide documents for the Senate inquiry into the sports grants saga. I'll make clear to the Senate that these documents relate to the legal authority the minister had to make decisions about these grants. We have always questioned whether the minister actually had the legal authority to make these decisions. It is a concern that many legal submissions made to the committee have questioned the legal authority that the minister had. The only basis that the public has for believing that the minister had legal authority to make these decisions is a piece of legal advice that the Attorney-General has hold of but will not make public. That is the only information that we have.

In the letter, the acting chair of Sport Australia noted that there are current legal proceedings on foot. But I want to make clear to the Senate that the members of this committee have gone about this in a very deliberate way. We understand that legal professional privilege isn't always a ground for a public interest immunity claim and that when there are legal proceedings on foot we do need to be careful in that respect. We have asked for this evidence to be in camera so we can at least understand what advice Sport Australia had and what understanding they had about the minister's legal authority. We have asked for it to be in camera and it has not been provided. That's why the interim report put a recommendation to the Senate, and the Senate supported that recommendation. The Senate supported the recommendation to request this information because it's crucial for the public to understand how badly the government mismanaged taxpayer funds, when it came to making decisions about who would receive this money.

We know there are so many circumstances in this saga that the government is refusing to make public. There are numerous documents that the government has refused to make public, and not just to our inquiry. Everyone is familiar with the Gaetjens report. The Prime Minister wasn't happy with the Auditor-General's report and what that said, so he went to get his own report from Mr Gaetjens. That report was completed and—what do you know!—it said that nothing was wrong here, that nothing untoward had been done, and that we don't need to worry about this matter anymore. But that report has not been made public. Not a single member of the public, a single member of the Senate or anyone on this committee has had the opportunity to read that report so we can understand what questions were asked, what witnesses were questioned and what documents the report had access to. Without that information, this committee, the Senate and members of the public can only conclude that the government is covering this up. Otherwise, you would release the information and make it public.

Why is it a concern? We know that the government ran a parallel process. The minister, in conjunction with the Prime Minister's office—there were 136 emails—ran a parallel process to make recommendations about where these funds should go. Sport Australia had a merit assessment process. They scored applications. People who have experience with sport—understanding where these funds should go and assessing applications on their merit—were the ones who made the decision. When that list made its way over to the minister's office, the Prime Minister intervened and said: 'No, no, no. We've got an election coming up. We need to make sure there are enough announcements in our marginal seats so we can stand next to a big cheque, get a photo and make sure this money is going to people for their votes'—not to the people who might need the money, not to the sporting clubs that had done the hard work to make sure they had a really good application. They made sure this money only went to the people whose votes they needed. That is not how the government should be handing out taxpayer funds.

There's another reason why the government doesn't want to let anyone know the truth of this scandal. Senator Farrell is right: we are not letting this go. We are not letting this go because when we finally get these documents they will show that the Prime Minister was intimately involved in this scandal. There were 136 emails back and forth between the Prime Minister's office and the minister's office. They included several examples of the colour-coded spreadsheet, and changes to that spreadsheet were requested by the Prime Minister's office multiple times. They were working with CHQ, their campaign headquarters, to make these changes. It was a politicised process; it shouldn't have been. None of these sporting clubs were told, 'Don't bother applying unless you live in one of our marginal seats.' That is what people need to know. How was this process allowed to occur?

I want to draw the Senate's attention to one of the documents that we have received. I think it shines a light on why we know this government is not going to provide any other documents, why this government is going to ignore a resolution of the Senate. This is an email from the executive director of sports partnerships in Sport Australia on 5 December 2018. It is one of the documents that we have actually managed to get, through the estimates process and through this inquiry. It goes to show that, when we do get the documents, they paint a very grim picture for this government. This email, sent to the Prime Minister's office and cc'd to the CEO of Sport Australia, refers to the changes the minister has made to the decisions in this program. It says: 'We also recognise your comments that, in making changes to the approved list, the minister's office used a ratings scale provided by Sport Australia as a reference. But the minister is advised that, as the delegate, she may need to defend the decisions at Senate estimates'—that is, if changes were made she could not state that she approved the recommended decisions in the industry panel that followed due process where a rigorous, transparent and defensible process took place. Sport Australia tried to warn the minister that she shouldn't go down this road, because she would end up having to answer questions about not following the recommendations of Sport Australia. We know that the government was warned. We know that good people in Sport Australia had very grave concerns about this process and they raised those concerns with the minister. They said to the minister, 'Hey, wait a second—you might not want to go down this track, because, if you do, you'll be doing the wrong thing.'

But those in the government didn't care. All they had in their sights was the election and getting themselves re-elected. It was all about protecting their own jobs—about getting themselves back into their cushy jobs—and not about doing the right thing by the sporting clubs and the people who made these applications and the people in the public who expect better from this government.

This letter today is not unexpected, but it is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that a committee of the Senate and the Senate itself is not being given the information it needs to understand what has gone wrong here. We know the reason that we are not being given this information: it's because the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was at the head of this scandal. The more documents we receive—because we're not giving up—the more they will show that the Prime Minister led the sports rorts scandal and he let Minister McKenzie take the fall. And we're not going to stop until we've found them.

4:56 pm

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

What we've learnt today is that, whilst Minister Colbeck wasn't responsible for administering sports rorts, he was an accomplice in the cover-up. The minister has had 12 months to be honest with the Australian people and this parliament, to come in and explain what has gone on, to provide answers to those volunteers, those mums and dads—all those people who gave up so much of their time, in good faith, to apply, following the guidelines that were put forward by Sport Australia. They put in the volunteer hours—and we've heard from so many clubs this year about how many hours they dedicated to putting in a submission—and then they were dudded by this government, and all for political reasons. Yet those in the government don't have the good grace to come in and be upfront with those people who volunteered their time, tell them what's gone on and admit that this was all about their re-election. That was what their focus was on the whole time. So it is absolutely outrageous that, on this program, their political decision-making was paramount. They are treating this Senate with contempt by not providing the legal advice today—and I will come to that in more detail shortly.

They absolutely need to level with the Australian people. They need to fund those clubs that this government dudded—those clubs that received a high score and were judged as deserving by Sport Australia but were dudded. We know who they are. The government should do the right thing and fund those clubs. We've had a budget since this, and the government still failed to do it in the budget. But it's not too late. So many of those clubs that came and gave evidence to us are still desperate to have these upgrades. The work they have done in putting forward their submissions needs to be rewarded. We heard from so many worthy groups, councils and Indigenous councils who want to encourage young people to get involved in sport and to give Indigenous people an opportunity, in a place like Woorabinda, to play at a football ground with club rooms and appropriate facilities. We know that there's been much growth in women's sport, in particular, and that women's sport has been neglected. We've heard the stories about the women who have to change in their car or out the back of the club rooms, which is clearly not appropriate. And it is this government that's responsible for those things.

We've seen a pattern of behaviour—not answering questions on this and not providing legal advice—as they try to cover up what really went on. They won't answer questions such as: 'What was the involvement of the Prime Minister and his office?' We know that there were 136 emails between the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office about this program. We know that they won't even release the spreadsheets to us. So the committee has not seen the spreadsheets that the ministers made their decisions on. We haven't seen any of those. They won't release them to us. We haven't seen the Gaetjens report. We haven't seen the talking points about extending this program that were prepared for Minister McKenzie's meeting with the Prime Minister and his office.

As Senator Farrell said in his speech, as it got closer to the election, the political decision-making got worse. In round 1, it was 40 per cent ignored. In round 2, it was 70 per cent ignored. By round 3, as the election was imminent, it was 73 per cent ignored. The closer the election got, the more political the decision-making got. We also have no idea who authorised the five additional projects that were granted funding after caretaker kicked in. Caretaker applied, they still gave out five more grants, and we're none the wiser about who was responsible for that. That is just outrageous.

But let's get to the substance of today's legal advice. It was against the request of the Senate, on the authority of the then Minister McKenzie—to authorise grants as part of sports rorts is just another example in a long saga of the LNP government's lack of transparency and accountability. The letter from Sport Australia today claims that, due to legal proceedings commencing on 23 July this year, they are concerned that the Australian Sports Commission's interests may be adversely affected if the legal professional privilege applicable to the advice is prejudiced by the requirement to table this advice summary. The ASC's claim, however, doesn't explain why the minister made a PII claim on 16 July, before any legal proceedings had been commenced. There was a failure of the minister to come in here and address that issue specifically. This is even though the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, who asked for a $500,000 grant—and they were a high-scoring club, with 78/100; that's well above the threshold identified by the Audit Office of being eligible—requested that Sport Australia review their decision on 4 March this year. Sport Australia were still prepared to provide a confidential briefing of legal advice to the committee in May. Sport Australia again makes the claim that, on the basis of legal professional privilege, they should not be required to table the legal advice.

However, legal professional privilege has not been accepted in the Senate's grounds for refusing to provide information or documents. The Senate has rejected government claims that there is a longstanding practice of not disclosing legal advice. Legal advice to the federal government is often disclosed by the government itself. As in the letter and the PII claim itself, the disclosure of the information may materially affect the Commonwealth's position in pending legal proceedings. The committee was not satisfied with that—and that the correspondent explains the specific harm to the public interest that would result. Again, there has been no explanation as to the risk of providing a confidential briefing to the committee in camera, as the committee said we were happy to accept. Further, it needs to be stated that we consider this information vital evidence for the inquiry as it goes to the very legal foundations of the program and whether then Minister McKenzie even had the legal authority to be authorising these grants.

The legal experts the committee has heard from have all been unable to find the suggested legal authority the then Minister McKenzie claims to have had to make these grants. I went through some of these issues with the legal authorities. We heard from Professor Lindell. We heard from Professor Twomey. These are experts in constitutional law. They could not identify the legal authority that the minister had to be the decision-maker in this process. It's not enough that it was in the guidelines. That is irrelevant. They had to identify the legal authority, and they were unable to do it. This is why we have pursued this. Sport Australia were originally happy to give us the summary in camera, which we had agreed to. But then it was Minister Colbeck who claimed the PII, which is why we've brought it to the Senate and why the Senate voted for that in the debate on the interim report on Tuesday night. So we will continue to pursue it, but we will continue to pursue a whole range of issues, and that's why the sports rorts inquiry will be going on into next year. We had an aim to finish it this year, but the fact that the government won't cooperate makes it all the more necessary to continue to pursue it.

So what are the 136 emails between the minister's office and the Prime Minister's office discussing this scheme? What is the content of those? Give us access to the spreadsheets so that we can see which clubs missed out and what scores they received, and so that we can actually talk to them and let them tell their story. Some of the compelling evidence we have seen this year, the most compelling evidence we have seen this year, has come from those volunteers, those mums and dads that I talked about, who put in the work and were dudded by this government. They deserve the opportunity to be heard. They also deserve the opportunity to ask this government to do the right thing and fund those clubs that received the highest scores.

We will continue to pursue the legal authority, because it puts the very basis of this program in doubt and the government haven't been able to provide assurances. The Gaetjens report, which is another document the government haven't released, actually goes to the heart of why Minister McKenzie lost her job. What was in those talking points that were prepared for then Minister McKenzie for her meeting with the Prime Minister as they discussed future rounds of this program? What led to the political decision-making that we saw? And who approved those five projects after caretaker had been started? This is a fundamental element of democracy, but this government have not provided any answers for that at all, and there are five projects out there that were given grants with no authority.

Question agreed to.