Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Philip Gaetjens (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens’ attempt to protect the government from the sports rorts scandal bears all the characteristics of the longtime political staffer he is, not the public servant he is paid to be.

Instead of providing the report he prepared on whether Bridget McKenzie’s “administration” of the community sports infrastructure grants program breached the Statement of Ministerial Standards, Gaetjens last week chose to give the Senate committee investigating the scandal a letter explaining how he’d reached his conclusions.

Those conclusions were exactly what the government needed — that overall the program had not been rorted, but that McKenzie had failed a trivial admin requirement of declaring a small gift, so she had to go. There was no conspiracy here, just a lone gunwoman.

The ensuing reaction has damaged Gaetjens’ reputation — especially the criticism from one of his predecessors, Mike Keating.

Gaetjens’ letter does explain something that Scott Morrison failed to mention when giving his verbal account of Gaetjens’ report — that “there were some significant shortcomings with respect to the Minister’s decision making role”, mainly around transparency.

And he says the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines (CGGs) should be extended to entities like the Sports Commission, which are currently exempt. Which is a funny coincidence, because that’s what the government, in the wake of the scandal, has been forced to do.

Otherwise, Gaetjens gives a tick to the program, declaring “I did not find evidence that the separate funding approval process conducted in the Minister’s office was unduly influenced by reference to ‘marginal’ or ‘targeted’ electorates.”

Instead, he tries to explain away various problems identified by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report, using distraction, selectivity and straw man arguments. Exactly what you’d expect from a long-time political staffer.

First, Gaetjens wants us to know that McKenzie had enormous discretion about how she administered the grants.

Except, as the audit reveals, there is no evidence of how or even if those “other factors” were used at all. McKenzie’s staff admitted — under compulsion — to the ANAO that “there were no records available that explained how they had individually or collectively impacted upon the decision-making process”.

And of course McKenzie had no power to be the final approver. Only the Sports Commission, under its act, could approve the funds. As the audit makes clear, the legal basis on which she approved funding isn’t clear.

Remember, Gaetjens’ job was to find out if McKenzie had breached the Statement of Ministerial Standards, which centre around integrity, fairness and accountability.

McKenzie avoided the requirements of the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines when she (or was it the PMO?) picked the Sports Commission to run the program, ignoring at least two existing programs, one run by the Department of Health and another by the Department of Infrastructure — which are subject to the CGGs — that provided sports infrastructure grants.

McKenzie’s handling of the program would have repeatedly breached the CGGs, which is why Gaetjens ends up agreeing there should be no more exemptions to them.

Where was the integrity, fairness and accountability of deliberately picking an agency that was exempt from the CGGs to replicate programs already being delivered elsewhere?

Gaetjens then deploys a straw man argument to “prove” that electoral machinations involving marginal or targeted seats did not feature in McKenzie’s decisions.

McKenzie didn’t see the spreadsheet listing grant applications against marginal/targeted electorates, so she couldn’t have rorted the grants!

This appears to be intended for people who think ministers sit down with a colossal in-tray and go through every piece of paper flowing into their office. In fact they have large staffs of advisers, liaison officers and media people to handle their paperwork.

And the whole point is that, if you’re going to rort something, you make sure the minister doesn’t have direct oversight of it — staff (who, conveniently, can’t be called before Senate committees) do it.

Gaetjens tries to bolster his case with the bizarre observation that there was a gap of a few weeks between the spreadsheet being developed and the grant decisions being made. Um, Phil, the spreadsheet listed marginal and targeted electorates.

That’s not exactly a list that shifts from week to week. It was based on the 2016 election results and what the government thought it could win. So what if it was developed three weeks before decisions were made? It wasn’t going to change.

Finally, Gaetjens offers his own maths to show there was no rorting.

But notice what metric he’s using. He only mentions numbers of grants. Nowhere in his letter does Gaetjens mention money.

You’ll search in vain for a $ symbol. But the money is the important thing. You can fund six projects worth $5,000 each in a safe electorate but also fund two $200,000 projects in a targeted electorate. The ANAO’s metric is where the money went. Let’s remember its conclusion.

You’ll also look in vain to find Gaetjens anywhere acknowledge that McKenzie’s office demanded nine ineligible applications be funded, using a “emerging issues” exemption in the program guidelines, except her staff “did not demonstrate how these applications reflected ‘emerging issues’ or addressed priorities that had not been met”.

Guess where those applications were located? “Seven of the projects were located in a Coalition held-electorate and two in ‘targeted’ electorates (one held by Labor and the other by an independent member).”

Gaetjens’ slipshod reasoning, selectivity and efforts to distract from the real issue reflect a couple of things.

One is that the bureaucrats in PM&C who drafted his letter for him don’t have a good grasp of grants administration (understandably — it’s a central agency, not a line agency).

The other is that Gaetjens has spent so long as a staffer that whatever rigour he had as a public servant seems to have been replaced by the need to protect his boss.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW