Sports Rort: A level playing field?

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Words | Harry Fraser

Over the last couple of months, the phrase ‘Sports Rort’ has been thrown around like one of those ball things from the sports. As you can likely tell, this is the most I’ve followed anything to do with sports ever. Why? Because I love a scandal that exposes some tomfoolery. 

This all starts back in December 2018 when the government announced the Community Sports Infrastructure Grant Program, the aim of which was to increase participation in sports. 

Under this program local sporting clubs could apply for grants of up to $500,000 to put toward upgrading facilities. The applications would be sent to Sport Australia, an independent government agency, who would then mark applicants out of 100. The score would depend on how the project would increase sports participation, particularly from women and Indigenous people. 

The first round of funding was announced in December 2018, with $28 million being allocated to the program. This was increased twice to total $100 million for the final rounds of funding in March and April 2019. 

The Federal election was in May of 2019. It was considered to be a tough election for the Coalition to win. Just putting that out there. 

What brought this program to the attention of the Auditor General was an incident that occurred in February, 2019. Georgina Downer, who at the time was the Liberal Party’s candidate for the seat of Mayo in South Australia, was photographed giving the Yankalilla Bowling Club a novelty cheque for $127,373, the amount awarded as part of the grant. The club planned to use this money to upgrade their third bowling green. The cheque had Ms Downer’s name and picture on it as well as Liberal Party logos. 

The key issue here was that Ms Downer, not a member of Parliament, was seen to be awarding public funds on behalf of herself and the Liberal Party. In reality these were taxpayer dollars awarded to a sports club as part of the Sport Australia grant program. The actual member of parliament for Mayo, Rebekah Sharkie, who would normally be part of such an event, was not told about the successful application of the grant until after Ms Downer was. 

Ms Downer defended her actions by stating that the cheque was not legal tender (because it was a novelty check) and therefore not actually the grant money, but also that no one from the bowling club was under the impression it was her money. I know I usually put my own picture on things when I don’t want people to think it belongs to me, so I get it Georgina. 

Labor referred the matter to the Auditor General, whose role is to audit financial statements of government agencies, including Sport Australia and the Sports Minister. 

The report by the Auditor General was released in mid-January 2020 and was pretty damning of the entire grant program. The report found that although applications were marked by Sport Australia on the set criteria, the Sport Minister Brigette McKenzie ran a separate approval process. Not much is known about McKenzie’s alternative criteria or  process other than it diverged from the criteria set by Sport Australia. 

The Auditor General found that there was a bias in how funding was allocated towards seats the Coalition either wanted to hold onto or win in the election. In other words, grants were not always awarded on merit but to improve the Coalition’s chances in targeted seats.

As mentioned before, the approval process involved Sport Australia reviewing the applications from local clubs and scoring them out of 100. Sport Australia then recommended which projects should be funded based on their scores to the Minister, who would then make the final decision. 

The Auditor General’s report found that in the first round of funding, 41% of projects funded were not recommended by Sport Australia. 

In the second round, 70% of projects funded were not recommended by Sport Australia. 

In the third and final round, 73% of projects funded were not those recommended by Sport Australia. 

Ultimately, $100 million was given to 684 projects, and over 400 of them were not recommended by Sport Australia. We don’t know exactly which specific projects were not recommended, just that there were over 400 of them.

Based on the number of applicants, local clubs would have had to score 74 out of 100 to qualify for funding. I’ll give some examples of projects that were funded.

The Pakenham Football Club received the lowest score out of all applicants, 50 out of 100, yet was still awarded the full $500,000 grant to build female change rooms despite not fielding a women’s team in over two years following a sexism controversy. The club is in the marginal Liberal-held seat of La Trobe.  

Another project that received the full $500k was the upmarket Applecross Tennis Club in Perth, despite its score of 54. The club boasts members that belong to state and federal branches of the Liberal Party. 

The Mosman Rowing Club was also awarded the maximum amount of $500,000. This project and five others in Tony Abbott’s former electorate were awarded funding prior to the 2019 Federal election.

$190,000 was awarded to the Tea Tree Valley Golf Club that sits at the foot of the picturesque Adelaide Hills. The club applied for funding (under a sporting grant) to upgrade their foyer in order to attract more wedding bookings. You see the problem.

In response to the report, many demanded the resignation of now Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie who oversaw the allocation of funding. The Prime Minister opened an internal investigation headed by Philip Gaetjens, the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

The report was handed down to the PM in early February and shown to Cabinet. Then Scott Morrison held a press conference in which he stated that the report found overall, no political bias was evident in how the grants were handed out and Bridget McKenzie did nothing wrong. Except for when she failed to declare a conflict of interest by awarding her own shooting club $30,000 as part of the grant. 

Basically, everything is all good, but Bridget made a little mistake and she will step down from her position as Minister. 

Sweet Scomo, that’s great to hear. When can we see the report that says all this, seeing as the Auditor General’s report looked at the same facts and found a very different conclusion? Sorry, what’s that? We can’t see the report because it’s Cabinet material and therefore confidential to the public? The PM is right and it is technically legal for him to withhold it on this basis, but it’s not common practice. 

The Auditor General investigates an issue and finds wrongdoing on the government’s part and makes the report public. The government investigates the same issue and finds no wrongdoing but won’t share the report. 

So that is the end of it. Bridget McKenzie lost her ministerial position and is now a backbencher, right there next to Barnaby. The whole ‘Sports Rort’ saga highlights the need for transparency when it comes to government grants, a problem that is starting to get more attention. 

But what triggers me most is that some people literally applied for money to level their playing fields and they didn’t get the chance to. Instead, the playing field got more disparate.

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