bridget mckenzie sports rort
Bridget McKenzie (Image: AAP/James Ross)

In order to rort the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, the government abandoned its own, bespoke, $100 million online grants platform meant to enable access to all Commonwealth grants.

In 2015, as part of its “Digital Transformation Agenda”, the government committed to spend “$106.8 million for streamlining government grants administration by adopting standard business processes, a common ICT platform, improved reporting arrangements and a single portal to search and apply for grant opportunities”.

The “Streamlining Grants Administration Initiative” led to the creation of two grants hubs in 2016 — one for business, the other for community groups and individuals — operated by the Department of Social Services, which were intended to be one-stop-shops for all Commonwealth grants.

They would provide information about grant opportunities, applications for them, and record-keeping about who had received them. Via Grantconnect, potential applicants can learn about grant opportunities across the whole of government and how to apply for them, as well as find out who has received them.

As all Commonwealth agencies moved to Grantconnect, the government promoted its initiative. In last year’s budget, it boasted

The Streamlining Government Grants Administration Program continues to reduce the duplication of effort and expense associated with agencies administering grants programs individually. The Program has established two new Grants Hubs (the Community Grants Hub and the Business Grants Hub) to deliver around $10 billion per annum in grants on behalf of 14 agencies, and to provide an improved experience to grant applicants and recipients.

The Department of Health was one of the first to sign up to Grantconnect, with Health Minister Greg Hunt spruiking the use of the system in his media releases. Nationals Minister Bridget McKenzie also recommended the use of Grantconnect when she contacted local councils advising of extra drought funding in 2018.

The hubs are intended for all Commonwealth entities’ use, not just departments administering grants. Regulators like ASIC, non-corporate Commonwealth entities like Geoscience Australia and corporate Commonwealth entities like Wine Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency all use it.

However, the Sports Commission, a corporate Commonwealth entity, does not yet use Grantconnect.

And when the government decided to fund a new sports infrastructure program in 2018, it not merely avoided handing control of the program to a Commonwealth department, but it avoided using the very site it had spruiked as the one-stop shop for all Commonwealth grants.

This was, seemingly, a peculiar decision. The Department of Health, which has responsibility for sport, was already using Grantconnect to provide sporting grants, large and small, in programs like the Sporting Integrity Program and Physical Activity Projects program in 2018.

And sporting infrastructure grants were already available via Grantconnect from the Department of Infrastructure’s Regional Development programs. As Grantconnect shows, these were in 2018 already providing a wide range of grants for projects like upgrading change rooms and showers, improving playing surfaces, fixing tennis courts, providing Little Athletics facilities, or improving lighting.

Indeed, the new program was actually announced in the Department of Infrastructure budget papers, and its similarity to existing programs was referred to as “complementing existing government investments through regional development programs”.

Why did the government not simply expand the existing infrastructure programs that were already helping sports clubs around Australia?

Giving the program to infrastructure, however, would have meant the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines would have had to be applied. They require, as the Department of Finance explains, “that Ministers must not approve a grant or group of grants without first receiving written advice from officials on the merits of the grant or group of grants”. (Emphasis original.)

But the last thing the government wanted was written advice on the merits of grants — it wanted to pork barrel marginal electorates, not allocate grants on merit.

Indeed, the Australian National Audit Office noted that Bridget McKenzie’s office explicitly told the Australian Sports Commission not to send its assessment of grant applications, approved by the commission board, to the minister, as that would create a paper trail that would shows the divergence between what the minister approved and what was recommended on their merits.

And putting the program on Grantconnect would also have come with extra requirements: when grants are allocated, full details must be published within 21 days, along with any variations.

If the grants McKenzie wanted to rort were published rapidly, not merely would Coalition MPs and candidates have less opportunity to use the awarding of grants for PR purposes, the details would demonstrate how skewed the grants were toward marginal seats.

It was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hide blatant porkbarrelling via a program that didn’t need to exist, administered by an agency that shouldn’t have done it, avoiding the government’s own probity and transparency requirements.

Peter Fray

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