There is no news in this column. You’ll learn nothing more of the $100 million Bridget McKenzie sports grants scandal than has already graced the headlines.
This is merely an attempt to humanise the loss, to push through the protective skin of cynicism that has formed about the Australian heart when confronted with another example of political malfeasance.
“They all do it,” we mutter with passing disgust and turn the page. Come the next election we acquiesce to giving them the chance to do it again.
And it’s not as if Senator McKenzie’s effective theft of money from deserving community sporting organisations was a matter of life or death, or at least not obviously.
It’s not as if she was underfunding rural fire services or failing to acquire an adequate aerial firefighting force or resisting carbon emissions reductions.
But the deputy leader of the National Party, next-in-line to a sometimes-acting Prime Minister, and her hack ministerial advisers did trample people to use your money to keep their snouts and that of their colleagues in the public trough.
There are the obvious people used and abused in the process – the community sports volunteers and Sport Australia staff Senator McKenzie teased and misled with the supposed availability of grants, the people she encouraged to diligently work for a sound cause, the people she lied to and discarded.
Then there are the less obvious souls – the people who were more deserving of government assistance than those who were targeted for their votes in marginal seats.
These people represent the opportunity cost of base political bribery – what greater good could have been achieved with the better use of public money, with the ethical, rather than unethical, use of your money?
It’s been a while since I was involved in community sport, quite a while, but it left me with a conviction about the general nobility of the cause.
Taking your turn with the sausages and the BBQ, helping set up and dismantle, coaching, washing the jerseys, sitting through the annual meeting, it’s all good stuff.
And, when done well, it’s brilliant. In particular when young people are encouraged to play in good spirit, to understand and grow to love teamwork, to broaden their experiences and challenge themselves, it can be a very fine thing indeed.
There are the usual claimed health benefits of sport, of course, but there is more than that at stake. Hand on heart, I think over the years I’ve seen lives positively influenced by community sport, young lives maybe moulded a little for the better by the experience of people taking care of each other.
Team sport as we generally know it is not for everyone, for some it is nothing at all or worse, but there are others for whom it has been very important indeed, kids who might not otherwise have been touched by a sense of beneficial community.
Senator McKenzie spat on those people.
She decided they weren’t important, that buying a few votes was more important than honourably discharging her elected duty.
Nothing displays a politician’s treason – putting personal interests before the nation’s best interests – than a willingness to raid the public purse for partisan gain.
Then there are those volunteers who carefully read the grants’ guidelines, who jumped through the hoops and spent the hours, the many hours working up a deserving application. There would have been meetings – meetings! – to agree on what was needed and what might be sought.
The volunteers are generally true believers in their community and sport, in the fellowship and help it provides, in that quaint old idea of “society”.
Senator McKenzie and her hacks toyed with those good people, played with their hopes and betrayed them.
The game was rigged. The ref was corrupt. They never had a chance.
The volunteers preparing those deserving submissions were amateurs playing against seasoned cynical political pros. They weren’t even playing the same game – the volunteers playing community, the political hacks playing pure political self-interest.
And what about the good people at Sport Australia who tried to run an honest contest? If you want your soul destroyed, try being honest in an overwhelmingly corrupt system.
Do your work, put in the hours, maybe find some little community gems that you’d like to think you could help shine, take some pride as a bureaucrat in a good outcome from a professional process – only to have loathsome political advisors in the minister’s office rip up your work and bury those gems.
The first recommendation of the ex-Telstra chief David Thodey’s public service review to be dismissed out of hand by the government was that political advisers should have a code of conduct. You can guess why.
The erosion of the Australian Public Service by successive governments’ white-anting has reached its peak with the political hacks in ministers’ offices riding roughshod over departments and bodies such as Sport Australia. No care and less responsibility.
There may have been an occasion when the Auditor General has been blunter about the structural corruption of a minister’s office, but I can’t at this moment recall it. Says the ANOA report:
The award of funding 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.
There is some irony in the initial impetus for the audit coming from Georgina Downer’s stunt at a bowling club in the family ancestral seat she failed to win.
It was tacky and obviously dodgy at the time for the Liberal candidate – not even an incumbent MP – to be proffering $127,373 of our money in a Liberal-branded mega-cheque, barrel girl style.
As it turned out, the good folk of Mayo were not so easily bought.
I don’t know if the Yankalilla Bowling Club was one of the more deserving applicants for a grant, scoring close to 100 on the Sport Australia system, or one of the rubbish efforts.
It might or might not have been the application that scored just 39 point but was plucked from the Sport Australia bin by Senator McKenzie for purely political purposes.
But her office stealing millions from the most deserving community sports clubs to buy votes has ended up staining the whole process.
The decency deficit
Did your club win a grant in Bridget’s rigged game? Did you deserve it – or are you the recipient of stolen goods? Does the Yankalilla Bowling Club and others like it in marginal seats feel a little bit soiled by association now or doesn’t it care how it came by the taxpayers’ dosh?
And finally, there’s Sport Australia.
Where was the protest? Where was the mass resignation? What does it say about the integrity of the board that it stood by mute while its staff’s honest work was trashed and the Sport Australia name was traduced as a fig leaf for political corruption?
Maybe Sport Australia’s chiefs, like Bridget McKenzie, her staff and her fellow ministers and their staff, are only in it for themselves and are not interested in promoting and protecting best practice with public funds.
We need a real Federal ICAC yesterday. There’s no way this government will allow one.