News Politics Australian Politics Michael Pascoe: Look who helped sports grant corruption get the go-ahead
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Michael Pascoe: Look who helped sports grant corruption get the go-ahead

Scott Morrison Bridget McKenzie
Michael Pascoe wonders who helped the sports grant scandal go ahead. Photo: Getty/TND
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So Senator Bridget McKenzie, the most senior members of the coalition government and their sundry ministerial office staff are fine with corrupting community sport grants.

What about Sport Australia?

According to Sport Australia’s annual report, the board and CEO had no problems with McKenzie & Co spitting on community volunteers either.

The annual report is the formal opportunity to spell out standards, to scratch a mark in the historical record.

It’s the place to look for transparency and accountability – or at least a meek hint about the relevant minister hijacking the Australian Sports Commission’s work, traducing the sense of a fair go that Australians would like to think we embrace with our community sport.

Such a line in the annual report would cover the board and bureaucrats’ collective backside should the stink escape the political sewer, as it has.

From chairman John Wylie then: Nada. Nothing. A complete air swing.

If I remember my high school study of a A Man For All Seasons, silence is to be taken as consent. Something about the standard you walk by being the standard you accept.

Of course the chairman and directors are political appointments. What about the supposedly apolitical executive?

Kate Palmer
Outgoing Sport Australia CEO Kate Palmer.

Well CEO Kate Palmer did mention the program – glowingly.

“The Community Sport Infrastructure grants program is delivering more than $100m to enhance more than 680 grassroots facilities across Australia. This is an investment in building stronger, healthier communities,” writes Ms Palmer.

Maybe someone edited out what should have completed that sentence: “… though overwhelmingly only those in marginal seats or ones the coalition thinks it might lose or could win by splashing taxpayers’ cash around at the expense of more deserving communities elsewhere”.

Ms Palmer could then have cited the $500,000 gifted to the Mosman Rowing Club, with Tony Abbott’s smiling face as a prime example of her commission’s work.

Tony Abbott
A $500,000 gift to the Mosman Rowing Club failed to help Tony Abbott resurrect his political career. Photo: AAP

Even when the McKenzie hit the fan, thanks to the absolutely excessive behaviour of the Liberal political machine trying to get Georgina Downer up in her father’s old seat of Mayo, Sport Australia is careful not to give a hint of unease about being shamelessly used and abused.

Instead, the chairman, board and CEO appear to support the rorted program, defending the indefensible.

Here is Sport Australia’s response on Wednesday to Auditor-General Grant Hehir’s bombshell: “Sport Australia acknowledges the report prepared by the Australian National Audit Office: Award of Funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program.

“We accept the Auditor-General’s three recommendations in the report that relate specifically to Sport Australia and have already taken significant steps to implement them, including additional measures. We seek to continually improve the administration of our grants programs for the sport sector, and there are lessons from this for the future.

“The Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program has been delivering positive outcomes for hundreds of grassroots sporting organisations and local communities around the country, supporting construction and upgrades at sporting facilities to help increase participation and get more Australians moving.

“We remain committed to delivering the very best for sport and ensuring all Australians are able to access safe, inclusive and quality community sporting facilities.”

Je ne regrette rien.

No hint of the need to stand on principle. No suggestion that the commission might have a duty to blow the whistle when the minister steals money from the most deserving community organisations in order to keep said minister’s nose in the trough. No indication that the board might regard principles more highly than their jobs.

There’s been an unsubstantiated claim on Twitter that Sport Australia troops further down the line were less insouciant, that they were outraged by their work being trashed by political hacks, that they absolutely welcomed the Auditor-General’s investigation and were, shall we say, extremely helpful in that investigation.

That claim doesn’t really need substantiating – the Sport Australia staff who worked on the program would be less than human if they didn’t feel and act that way.

Ms Palmer announced in October she would not be seeking a new contract when her three-year term expires at the end of this month. That was considered a shock at the time of the announcement.

Sydney Morning Herald sports writer Roy Masters reported she is returning to Melbourne, where her mother is seriously ill. He also noted Ms Palmer has learned government-speak during her time in Canberra:

Asked to comment whether she had earlier expressed concerns on the way Senator McKenzie’s Department of Sport distributed the grants, Palmer said: ‘I’m not prepared to comment on that’.’’

It leaves the board to defend its lack of action or protest, which it has not.

Since 2013, the coalition has made an art form out of stacking commonwealth bodies and boards with mates.

Remember that one of the very first decisions of the Abbott government, via Julie Bishop, was to pull Steve Bracks off a plane to New York where he was to be our Consul-General, instead giving that perk to climate change denier Nick Minchin.

Such is the stacking that all such boards and positions have a whiff about them. Like the community sports grants, are they there on merit or the opposite?

That means it’s incumbent on commonwealth bodies to be seen to act above the political trough. Thus far, the Australian Sports Commission, alias Sport Australia, has not.

This dispiriting situation is not without humour, if your sense of humour is dark enough. Elsewhere in the annual report, Ms Palmer wrote: “Sport volunteers are the lifeblood of our industry and we acknowledge the difficulty for grassroots community clubs to raise funds. (Especially when they are being played for mugs by corrupt politicians.)

“That is why Sport Australia has worked very hard with the Australian Sports Foundation and the 50-50 Foundation to launch the Play for Purpose charity raffle. It is an alternative funding source for sports and we intend to see it grow.” (Because at least in a raffle, you have an equal chance of winning – unless maybe it’s being run out of Bridget McKenzie’s office. The community sports grant roulette wheel was totally fixed.)

OK, the parentheses and italics are mine. It’s still pretty funny though – having remained mute while “the lifeblood of our industry” was shat on from a great height, Sport Australia thinks it’s great for volunteers to hit the streets selling raffle tickets.

The compliant board could start by spending all its collective remuneration on those raffle tickets.

And the annual report did include an example of a community grant that was not in a marginal seat – Scott Morrison holds Cook very comfortably. Records Sport Australia (and this time the italics are not mine): One grant recipient under the Community Sport Infrastructure grant was the San Souci Football Club.

During a visit to the San Souci Football Club to open their new facilities, Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed our Move It AUS grants programs and explained why keeping active is important for all Australians. Prime Minister Morrison says the Community Sport Infrastructure grants are not just an investment in bricks and mortar, but an investment in local communities.

“‘It’s the discussions you have around the BBQ or the tuckshop on the weekend when you’re working with other parents or along the sidelines. That’s where communities come together and that’s why you’ve got to make these investments and we’re just so pleased to do it, and to have the partnership with Sport Australia who are delivering this, I think is just tremendous.”’

The San Souci Football Club received a Move It AUS Community Sport Infrastructure grant of $50,000, which was used to build new facilities, including a new clubhouse.

Melissa Robertson, the San Souci Football Club president said: “To get a grant is just amazing. Before, we had the canteen, one little change room and a store room. It was extremely old and rundown. Now we have the clubhouse to rival the Taj Mahal.”

I’m guessing the discussions around the barbecue or the tuckshop on the weekend for most people who made grant applications is that the government defrauded them and that Scott Morrison’s stated reason for spending taxpayers’ money was, er, economical with the truth.

Who knew the truth?

Well, the Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee thought Bridget McKenzie was doing such a great job with the grants, her budget was increased from $70 million to $100 million. Those marginal seats weren’t going to buy themselves.

The Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee consists of the “Prime Minister, Treasurer, the Minister for Finance, along with other selected portfolio ministers”.

That’s Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and Mathias Cormann – the who’s who of the Liberal Party, its leader, deputy leader and leader in the Senate.

No wonder Bridget McKenzie is not being forced to resign.

Look who she could name as co-conspirators.

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