(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Is this the most corrupt federal government in Australian history?

The Howard government — lying about Iraq, the AWB affair, the Dili bugging, Mamdouh Habib, Mohamed Haneef, regional rorts, the MRI scandal, the government advertising scandal — might vociferously object to a younger generation claiming the prize. But the growing stench of rorted programs and self-interested decision-making is reaching historic levels in Canberra.

It’s now grown beyond that exemplar of maladministration, the Community Sports Infrastructure Grants program. It now extends to a grants program aimed at female swimming facilities in regional areas that funded facilities in literally the least regional place in Australia, North Sydney, and special help for aged-care facilities in the electorates of supporters.

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This is partly because of unusual circumstances. There’s a blatant push by Barnaby Joyce’s allies to drive Michael McCormack out of the Nationals leadership using the government’s News Corp allies, involving fake stories that McCormack is about to quit, and leaks about questionable administrative practices, like today’s on an aged-care facility.

Such dodgy practices are standard behaviour within the Nationals, and usually stay hidden unless exposed by an auditor. But the civil war within the party means they’ll continue to be brought to light.

The other special circumstance is that the government thought it was doomed before the last election and threw caution to the wind, not caring what any Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report might show post-election as they expected to be in opposition by then anyway.

This saw rorting so blatant and unashamed that it could not be hidden, especially with an auditor-general as diligent and determined to pursue good practice as Grant Hehir. That has opened the eyes of the media to what really goes on with grants.

The revelation yesterday that more than 160 emails pinged between the Prime Minister’s Office and that of Bridget McKenzie has shone further light on the role of ministerial staff in the rorting of the sports grants.

As it turns out, Scott Morrison was correct to describe the role of his office as the routine forwarding of representations to the office of a minister responsible for a program. The ANAO pointed out that requests forwarded by the PMO did not have any greater success than any other applications under the program.

As any public servant will tell you, being able to say you’ve forwarded the request to the area actually responsible for considering it gives you something to tell a supplicant without imposing any obligation or responsibility on you.

Occasionally the media remembers that political staffers face no accountability or parliamentary scrutiny (or, if they’re Liberal staffers, apparently any investigation by the Australian Federal Police).

This invariably prompts calls for greater accountability for a group who are neither public servants nor elected officials, and who thus face none of the scrutiny that either of those are subject to.

But the sports rorts scandal highlights a specific failure of current administrative regulation. For the purposes of administering grants, ministerial staffers don’t exist.

The Commonwealth grant guidelines — which didn’t apply to the Sports Commission but which, at least according to the government, will be extended to cover all bodies — only apply to “Ministers; accountable authorities; officials; and third parties who undertake grants administration on behalf of the Commonwealth”.

Except ministers now don’t make decisions about grants — in effect, their staff do, using spreadsheets based on electorates and winnable seats. Notionally, this shift in decision-making is captured by the fact that ministers remain accountable to parliament and under the guidelines for decisions made by their staff.

But staff are expendable political buffers for ministers, who can blame their staff, and even sack them, while insisting they themselves knew nothing of what their staff did.

Bridget McKenzie told Phil Gaetjens that she had never seen the spreadsheet that was at the centre of how her staffers overrode the advice of the Sports Commission to allocate funds to winnable seats. Of course she didn’t — she was too busy for that sort of detail, that’s exactly what she has staff for.

But that means that McKenzie, the “decision-maker” under the current grants administration framework, acted as a cypher for her staff, who allocated the funding based on political considerations.

So there’s a black hole around accountability given the role of political staffers in administering programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars: they have become the decision-makers, but are not captured by existing guidelines, and their ministers can evade accountability for their actions.

Only the ANAO, which can compel staffers to give evidence, can address the problem. But it can’t vet every program.

The only way to close the black hole is to make staffers accountable in the same way as their ministers — i.e. they can be called to appear before parliament — or make them subject to the Commonwealth grant guidelines like public servants are.

They have to be one or the other, rather than hiding in the middle. Otherwise, the stench of corruption and sordid abuse of taxpayer funding will only worsen.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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