News Michael Pascoe: COVID-19 hasn’t killed #sportsrorts – it’s festering

Michael Pascoe: COVID-19 hasn’t killed #sportsrorts – it’s festering

Scott Morrison Bridget McKenzie
Michael Pascoe wonders who helped the sports grant scandal go ahead. Photo: Getty/TND
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Now where were we before the pandemic interrupted? Ah yes, the Prime Minister and Sports Minister were up to their necks in the $100 million #sportsrorts scandal.

Events last week showed we’re still there.

The scandal, the institutionalised corruption, isn’t going away – but the attempted coverup is steadily unravelling.

Last week the Australian National Audit Office disclosed the smoking gun that made a nonsense of attempts by Mr Morrison and Senator McKenzie to claim they were not involved in defrauding sports clubs that thought they were taking part in an honest competition for infrastructure grants

And we have learned that, if you want to end a Scott Morrison media conference, you just have to ask a question about #sportsrorts.

The politically expeditious sacrificing of Bridget McKenzie on a technicality while avoiding the central issue has not solved Scott Morrison’s main problem: How to whitewash his involvement and that of his office and the Expenditure Review Committee?

Anyone who had been paying attention over the past eight months already knew the divvying up of $100 million in Community Sports Infrastructure Grants was a form of political corruption, that clubs were not treated on their merits but with an eye to the looming 2019 election, that deserving clubs were ripped off and applications of dubious merit were rewarded for being in targeted electorates.

Senator Bridget McKenzie resigned on a technicality. Photo: Channel Nine

The then Sports Minister, Senator McKenzie, and the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, have steadfastly claimed black was white in their attempts to deny that central reality of the abuse of taxpayers’ funds and sporting club volunteers’ hopes and time.

The ANAO has now revealed the fingerprints on the aforementioned smoking gun: The talking points prepared for Senator McKenzie ahead of her meeting with Mr Morrison to argue for a $70 million boost to the program in the lead up to the federal election so as to throw money at “marginal and target seats”.

As has previously been reported, the first $30 million worth of grants were not rorted.

It was the bigger second and third tranches where any pretence of considering applications purely on merit went out the window.

Such was the abuse of the government’s political slush fund in the second and third rounds that the overall allocation of funds was clearly skewed to where the Prime Minister’s office and the Liberal Party’s campaign headquarters (if there was any difference between those two entities) wanted them.

As the Guardian’s Paul Karp reported: “Officials from the Australian National Audit Office revealed to the Senate inquiry on Wednesday the talking points written by McKenzie’s senior adviser were the basis for its conclusion the community sport infrastructure grant program was skewed to target and marginal seats.

“Brian Boyd, the performance audit services group executive director, said that in November 2018 McKenzie’s office had provided the Prime Minister’s office with spreadsheets demonstrating how many more projects in marginal and targeted seats could be funded by expanding the program from $30m to $100m.

“In March 2019 the Prime Minister’s office had also asked McKenzie’s office for a list of unfunded projects and an indicative list of projects that might be funded in a third round, he said.”

Senator McKenzie, with all the credibility of Senator McKenzie, claimed on Thursday that she didn’t see those talking points and the talking points she hadn’t seen were not the basis of her pitch to the Prime Minister for an extra $70 million.

We’ll never know exactly what Senator McKenzie actually said to Mr Morrison, but we know that the $70 million flowed and were used as the talking points memo suggested and the Prime Minister’s Office took a great deal of interest in exactly where the money went, as evidenced by 136 emails back and force about them, never mind the infamous colour-coded spreadsheets.

sports rorts penny wong
Penny Wong accused the government of “corruption” in the sports rorts saga. Photo: AAP

And we already knew Mr Morrison was not telling the truth when he claimed at the National Press Club on January 29 that all his office did “was provide information based on the representations made to us”.

The weasel words employed by Mr Morrison and Senator McKenzie to duck and weave don’t work against the weight of evidence.

As The Canberra Times reported on May 11:

At 12.45pm (on April 10, 2019), the Prime Minister’s office emailed Senator McKenzie’s office to ask that a $500,000 grant in the seat of Kennedy – held by renegade independent MP Bob Katter – be dropped and the same amount instead be given to the Hawthorn Malvern Hockey Centre. The centre is in the electorate of Kooyong, held by Liberal frontbencher Josh Frydenberg.

Senator McKenzie’s office resisted, claiming the Kennedy project was “a very important one for the region” and the sport minister was due to visit the seat with the Liberal National Party candidate who had been lobbying for the money.

The sport minister’s office relented after the Prime Minister’s office pointed out the project had already received $3 million in funding through a separate grants program.

Pull the other one that the PMO wasn’t brazenly pushing grants around to suit the Liberal Party campaign and to make mugs of those volunteers who applied for help on their clubs’ own merits.

mckenzie morrison report sports grants
Scott Morrison has denied playing a major role in the handling of the sports grants program.

What’s left to be fingered is the detail of Scott Morrison’s involvement in the rort and how much the rest of the Coalition leadership team in the Expenditure Review Committee knew.

It seems Mr Morrison and Senator McKenzie would have us believe their offices had gone rogue and were doing what they wanted for whatever reason they wanted with taxpayers’ money.

These were not departmental players, but Mr Morrison’s and Senator McKenzie’s own political hacks, the “political advisers” they are directly responsible for and who Mr Morrison has pointedly excluded from having any legislated “code of conduct”.

By reputation, Scott Morrison is a micromanager and the 2019 election campaign was very much his own.

But the corrupt use of Commonwealth money for political purposes isn’t limited to the offices of the Prime Minister and Sports Minister.

The extra money had to be ticked off by the Expenditure Review Committee whose key members, after the Prime Minister, were the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

We’re left to imagine:

“OK lads, next item, we’re blowing out the Community Sports Infrastructure Program from $30 million to $100 million.”

“Gee, PM, why are we doing that? It’s absolutely imperative we’re Back in Black, we’re already spending billions on various grants – why suddenly increase this program out of the blue?”

“Oh, it’s for a very good cause. Bridget McKenzie is going to use this extra money for – – – – -“ (you fill in the blanks)

“Well, in that case, of course, PM, have another $70 million – or would you like more?”

It’s not hard to imagine the ERC knew exactly what the extra dosh was for and was happy with it as the ERC approved much bigger political slush funds than #sportsrorts.

Most notably, the $2.5 billion (and counting) Community Development Grants program approved and blessed by the ERC was designed specifically to suit the Coalition’s electioneering without the troublesome involvement of public servants and their inconvenient testing of projects’ worthiness.

If you’ll approve $2.5 billion worth of rorting, who’ll think twice about another $70 million?

2019 was a coincidentally rich year for federal sports funding.

But no doubt Mr Frydenberg, Senator Cormann, Mr Morrison et al will tell us it was all someone else’s doing – if they ever fully address the scandal.

From the point of view of facilitating a coverup, COVID-19 is an ill wind that blew some politicians good – but it’s still not strong enough to blow the fraud away.

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