It started with a Downer. Georgina, the faildaughter of the storied Adelaide dynasty, was floundering again in her second crack at winning Mayo — the family heirloom of an electorate that straddles the plusher parts of the Adelaide Hills.
In 2018, the Liberal Party gave Georgina the keys to Mayo and she sank so hard that a week out from the byelection the Libs had given up. The Downer dynasty was simply no match for Rebekha Sharkie, the popular Centre Alliance MP who “bleeds Mayo”.
Months later Downer won preselection again because, as local party elder Park Fogarty said, they simply did not have anyone better to run. Fogarty — a bit more on him later — was worried the “baggage of this dynasty” might drag Downer down.
Still, Georgina, who’d spent decades living nearly 1000km away in Melbourne, working her way through the soft-right wonkocracy, was parachuted back. But riding the family name still wasn’t working.
In early February, months out from an election everyone thought the Liberals would lose, Downer’s campaign was a comedy of errors. Liberal Party flyers started appearing around the electorate calling her “Georinga”. Another time, Downer appeared in a video with a “regular” retiree called Jim who wanted to voice his concern about Labor’s plan to abolish franking credits. Switched-on hacks quickly identified him as Jim Bonner, a long-term Liberal Party apparatchik, once press secretary to Malcolm Fraser.
It really was that kind of campaign.
But one moment stood out. Well after the Liberals were somehow returned, after Georgina had lost (again) and gone off to become a podcaster with her dad, the ripple effects from the moment would trigger a ministerial downfall and put the Morrison government through the ringer.
It began when Downer handed a giant novelty cheque worth $127,373 to the Yankalilla Bowling Club in late February 2019. The cheque was in Liberal blue, and prominently featured Downer’s head. In hot pink heels, and swilling flutes of champagne (or perhaps it was sparkling wine), Downer and the club’s leaders posed proudly for the cameras.
Downer’s political opponents smelled blood and pounced. It turned out the cheque was for money from Sport Australia. And that wasn’t money Downer — a mere candidate on the road to defeat — had any right doling out, or representing as a generous gift. It was, according to Sharkie, a “desperate and misleading” stunt.
Mark Dreyfus, Labor’s shadow attorney-general, and a former silk with a head for this stuff, quickly referred the cheque to the auditor-general.
For what it’s worth, the bowlo said they reached out to Downer because Sharkie never helped with their application. Sharkie produced a letter she claimed went to then-sports minister Bridget McKenzie. The club said they never saw it.
But a few useful Liberal connections between Downer and the bowlo had been bubbling away for a while. In late November 2018, Downer visited the club and spoke with officials about the dire state of their third green.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Scott Morrison and McKenzie were working on a scheme to funnel millions into various community sporting clubs. Three months later, Downer returned armed with the big cheque. The bowlo would get its green.
Another connection came in the form of Park Fogarty, who spoke so candidly about Downer’s Mayo credentials. He’d had a long affiliation with the Liberals, and in 2006 helped run the first South Australian lower house campaign for Michael Pengilly (now the mayor of Kangaroo Island). Fogarty was also the Yankalilla Bowls president who drafted their grant application.
The whole Yankalilla affair would be forgotten, of course, until about a year later when the auditor-general released a bombshell report unveiling what came to be known as the sports rorts affair. Millions in grant money were funnelled to marginal electorates, or Liberal targets.
Even now, Downer’s big cheque is but an early footnote in the affair. But in many ways, it sums up what the whole sorry episode was about.
It’s a story about a rank mateocracy, about brazen partisan pork-barrelling that leaves the little guys screwed over. It’s about rorters too incompetent to cover their tracks. And about politicians who get away with everything.
This is the story of the sport rorts affair.