Rorts may come and go: it’s keeping ministers accountable that matters

The Senate Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants (aka sports rorts) should be encouraged to continue and complete its inquiry.    

There will be protests that there are more important issues for the parliament to consider. This is in a sense true. Sports grants in themselves are trivial compared to the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 and our economic recovery.

Sports enthusiasts may disagree, but grants to local sporting bodies are not the key question here. 

What matters is holding ministers to account. 

Especially now, when ministers have unprecedented power to make decisions affecting our lives, it is more important than ever that they make those decisions properly, with authority from our elected representatives in parliament. 

The institutional means to ensure this is a minister’s knowledge that their decisions will be subject to scrutiny.

Without that we go the way of countries like Hungary or the Philippines, whose presidents are assuming dictatorial powers under cover of the virus.

It’s not about Bridget McKenzie: she has moved on already. It’s about how a democratic system keeps ministerial power in check.  

Australian citizens’ trust in government — and other institutions — has been falling over many years. All sides of politics have an interest in halting the decline, especially in light of our current challenges.

Trust depends, among many factors, on ethical and effective management of government grants.  Grants are more sensitive than most spending programs. They can benefit communities and grass roots organisations — or be misused for party political purposes, to reward favourites, or enrich mates. They are open to abuse and mismanagement under both Coalition and Labor governments.

Grants programs should be fair, ethical and transparent, managed according to clear principles and guidelines.

One of the key principles of our system is that ministers should not decide how to spend public money without legal authority.

In its report on the community sport infrastructure grants the Audit Office (ANAO) said “it is not evident to the ANAO what the legal authority [for the minister to approve grants] was”.

In an answer to a question on notice, published this week, Sports Australia has confirmed it provided no advice to the minister on her legal authority.  There is continuing doubt. Sports Australia says the legal basis was “Sport Australia’s own powers under the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989. In exercising its powers, it was open to Sport Australia to take account of the minister’s approval”. 

Sports Australia reveals it only sought legal advice after the ANAO raised the issue. It has provided that advice, but asked the committee to keep it secret. Hopefully the committee will ignore the request. This advice was paid for with taxpayers’ funds, provided to a public body. It is hard to see how its release would harm national security or future commercial negotiations.

The former minister’s submission argues that there was no political bias in awarding the grants. The ANAO report suggested otherwise. The Senate committee, and the public, can draw their own conclusions.

Bridget McKenzie criticises Sports Australia’s grants processes, partly as a justification for her exercise of ministerial discretion.

She also says — confirmed by Sports Australia — that it never briefed her about the issue of legal authority to approve the grants.

On this last issue she has a point. 

Ministers, absolutely, need to make their own inquiries to satisfy themselves that they are acting properly. They have offices to help them. She or her office should have.

Nevertheless, public servants should also help. It is not good practice to watch a minister walk blindfolded into a minefield while doing the bureaucratic equivalent of sticking fingers in your ears and singing loudly.  Sports Australia notably failed to provide advice to its minister on her legal status.

We know how grants should be administered. There are Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines (good guidance, even though technically Sports Australia is exempt) and numerous pieces of advice from the Finance Department, past ANAO reports, and parliamentary reports to draw on. 

What failed here was not the regulatory framework, but the culture of accountability and responsibility.  

The sports infrastructure grants were awarded hastily, in the context of a rapidly approaching election. Indeed, there is a question as to whether late changes were too late under caretaker conventions, under which governments do not take major decisions during the election period. 

That is not an excuse. It is precisely in times of speed and pressure that ministers should be vigilant about acting properly and with legal authority. It applied then, and applies now, COVID-19 or not. 

The conflicted interests of Bridget ‘Beretta’ McKenzie: Exhibits D and E

Yesterday Inq reported on the National Party’s blurred lines when it comes to conflict-of-interest questions. Today we ask if Senator Bridget McKenzie’s flawed decision-making during the sports rorts affair is actually part and parcel of how the Morrison government does business.

Exhibit D: a minister’s right to do what they want

Senator McKenzie has consistently refused to concede she breached the law or convention in overriding 73% of grant approvals recommended by Sport Australia bureaucrats, recommendations which followed a merit assessment.

In the first week of March — six weeks after her administration was eviscerated by a report by the independent Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) — she posted a defiant message to her website, saying. “I make no apology for applying ministerial discretion to ensure fairness across funded projects.”

Earlier this year, she maintained that elected representatives were “responsible for public expenditure and take advice, not direction, from the public service and others”.

“The operation of ministerial discretion is important to our democratic process,” she asserted.

McKenzie’s statement is a near word-for-word echo of the prime minister’s doctrine of ministerial authority, which he articulated in a speech to Australia’s public service heads last year:

Ultimately it is the minister who must decide whether to approve or not approve … because ultimately it is the minister who will be held accountable by the public. And that’s how it should be. Only those who have put their name on a ballot can really understand the significance of that accountability. As much as you might appreciate the Westminster system, until you put your name on a ballot, that changes everything.

“One of the worst criticisms I can tell you, in the locker room of politicians, that one politician can make of another, is that they’ve become a captive of their department as a minister,” said Morrison, using a sporting analogy which would not be lost on Senator McKenzie.

In an inquiry ordered by the prime minister, secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens endorsed McKenzie’s right to decide as minister.

In a brief public summary of his report (the full report is secret) Gaetjens concluded: “It is clear to me from the guidelines that, after an assessment process, Senator McKenzie was the final approver of funding decisions … I concluded therefore that, in exercising her role as decision maker for the program, Senator McKenzie acted within the remit of the guidelines.”

Exhibit E: the law? Yeah… nah

In maintaining that she has done no wrong, McKenzie claims there was no law stopping her from making whatever decisions she wished. Morrison and, critically, Gaetjens, agree that McKenzie’s actions were lawful.

Yet, according to the ANAO the grants had no legal authority.

The ANAO reported that Sport Australia had “recorded” that the legislation governing Sport Australia required that it – and not the minister – approve funding. 

Sport Australia’s parent body, the Department of Health, “identified” that if the minister was to be the approver then legal advice “may be required”. The ANAO found that legal advice was not sought, and concluded “there was no legal authority evident to the ANAO under which the minister was able to be the approver” of sports program grants using the money of Sport Australia.

Sydney University Constitutional Law Professor Anne Twomey is one of three legal experts who assert that the grants were unconstitutional and unlawful because McKenzie had no legal power to override Sport Australia.

Ultimately it appears that Senator McKenzie’s integrity breaches are no aberration at all – rather they are the inevitable result of a failure of checks and balances in government.

How to rort-proof grant programs: delete politicians

It’s a basic principle of democracy that elected officials, not bureaucrats, make important decisions — including how to spend taxpayer money. They’re the ones accountable to the electorate, not public servants.

But politicians themselves admit they can’t be trusted with certain decisions.

They acknowledge various forms of regulation must be independent of politics — corporate and prudential regulation, media regulation, competition regulation. In the 1990s, we decided the conduct of monetary policy was too important to be left to politicians, so the RBA was made independent.

Indeed, the politicisation of Treasury now means we rely on the Reserve Bank, the Productivity Commission and the Parliamentary Budget Office for economic and fiscal guidance.

With politicians admitting they can’t be trusted with important decisions, it’s natural to wonder what else should not be left in their hands. For generations, both sides of politics have made infrastructure decisions based on pork-barrelling, deals with friendly state governments, or the need for election announceables.

As infrastructure minister, Anthony Albanese at least established Infrastructure Australia to inject rigour into the process of project assessment. But politicians still control the purse strings.

And grants programs have long been an area of abuse, particularly by Nationals. Some of them oppose a national integrity body purely on the grounds that it would be an impediment to their rorting of programs.

After the Nationals’ last major rort, the regional rorts scandal that erupted during the 2007 federal election, grants administration was overhauled by Labor.

Commonwealth Grant Guidelines were established that identified requirements for the way public service departments handled grants programs overall and assessed grant applications.

They also imposed requirements on ministers, who had to comply with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 on “proper” use of money, could not approve grants without being given an assessment of them, and had to write to the Finance Minister once a year to report instances where they approved a grant in their own electorate or if they approved a grant application rejected by public servants.

The ANAO also developed a far longer guide for grant administration, Implementing better practice grants administration, but that was withdrawn in 2017 after the Department of Finance complained that the guide both duplicated the CGGs and set too high a standard for departments by “suggesting better practice beyond the scope of the current grants framework”.

There was a “risk”, Finance claimed, “in entities adopting additional processes as a de facto standard.” Apparently when it comes to spending taxpayer money, you can be too careful.

The CGGs have been updated a couple of times since then and remain in place — though not for bodies like the Sports Commission, which is probably why Morrison, McKenzie and co chose the commission to deliver the rorted grants.

Is the solution simply to extend the CGGs to all bodies handling grants? Remember the CGGs still allow ministers to fund grant applications that should be rejected — they only have to write to the Finance Minister in March the following year about it.

And problems still go on in programs covered by the CGGs. The half-billion dollars handed to the government’s mates at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation was almost fully compliant with the CGGs.

A ministerial panel doling out money under the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages program repeatedly rejected departmental assessments, with no notes taken and no public servants present to record them.

Although not a grant, an audit found that the Department of Infrastructure had explicitly warned the Abbott government not to hand $1.5 billion to the then-Victorian Liberal government for the East West Link project, but it did it anyway.

Even the bipartisan Stronger Communities Program was politicised by Scott Morrison’s office.

Sports rorts is thus only the latest scandal to demonstrate that if there is any possible way around the rules, politicians — especially Nationals — will find it in order to serve their own interests.

Extending the CGGs won’t insulate grants programs from rorting. Only removing ministers and their offices entirely from the approval process will remove the risk of rorting. That requires a swapping of roles.

At the moment, bureaucrats establish the guidelines for how grants programs will be run, and then ministers usually approve grants based on those guidelines.

Instead, ministers and their offices should be doing the guidelines for grants programs, and bureaucrats should be approving grants based on an in-house assessment — though with a separation between assessor and approver.

Ministerial staff might be tempted to write some bias into the guidelines for programs, but as the sports rorts show, staffers hate being exposed — the Auditor-General had to use his compulsion powers to force McKenzie’s staff to admit to how they misallocated the grants. Communication between ministers’ offices and either assessors or approvers of grants should also be prevented, in case staffers seek to direct bureaucrats about whom to give grants to.

Bureaucrats don’t administer grants perfectly. ANAO reports are replete with instances of bureaucrats failing to properly assess grants, breaking rules, failing to advise ministers properly and failing to keep proper records. Departments with little experience of administering grants, unsurprisingly, are more likely to stuff them up.

But that doesn’t reflect a deliberate intention to misuse taxpayer funds. And restoring the ANAO’s Implementing better practice grants administration as an aspirational standard would help there.

Against this, politicians insist that they bring something to the grants process that Canberra bureaucrats can’t, because they’re more in touch with communities.

That’s true. But their reluctance to actually record their reasons for deviating from departmental recommendations prevents a clear-headed assessment of the value they add.

And there’s another way of seeing local knowledge and community connections when it comes to grants: it’s called conflict of interest.

Most ministers — even the occasional Nat — administer grants properly and take seriously the obligations of both legislation and the CGGs.

But the persistent rorting that keeps on being exposed in government after government suggests that, as with monetary policy and industry regulation, politicians can’t be trusted on grants.

Time to delete them from the grants approval process altogether.

Don’t worry, minister. There is life after your resignation

If anything means anything anymore, surely former sports minister Bridget McKenzie should be sacked as agriculture minister.

The detailed revelations from the ABC’s Andrew Probyn yesterday — the actual spreadsheet, the exact scores of those clubs funded and those overlooked, the warnings McKenzie explicitly received — have managed to make her position even more tenuous. 

But if she does resign or is sacked, is she headed for a life of shame, disgrace and a modest job in retail? Far from it. We hear McKenzie’s a hot tip for the high commissioner job in New Zealand.

There is precedent for this. Here’s what happened to other ministers and MPs who’ve left public service in disgrace:

John Sharp

Transport minister in the Howard government, John Sharp was forced to resign over a parliamentary travel allowances affair. Sharp had voluntarily amended his travel claims and repaid almost $9000 of misuse of his travel allowance, but did not publicly disclose this information; neither did the administrative services minister David Jull, who oversaw the process.

And yet, Sharp boasts a impressively packed post-politics CV. He went on to become chairman of the Aviation Safety Foundation of Australia and, between 2001 and 2015, he was a director of Airbus Group Australia Pacific. He is currently chairman of Pel-Air Aviation Pty Ltd and a director of Power and Data Corporation Pty Limited, Luerssen Australia and the Australian Maritime Shipbuilding Export Group. He is also deputy chairman and an independent director of regional airline Rex. 

Sam Dastyari

Former Labor “bagman” Sam Dastyari points to another possible post-politics career for McKenzie: media expert on resigning in disgrace.

Dastyari quit following a series revelations about his relationship with the Chinese Communist Party — getting them to cover travel costs, asking colleagues not to meet with pro-democracy campaigners, et al.

Since then, Dastyari has stayed in the public eye, doing reality TV, spilling salacious politics goss on the radio, and regularly tweeting along the lines of “can you imagine if I did this?!” Indeed, it was absolutely no surprise to see him called on to write a column about the sports rorts affair

Jim Short

The last chaotic decade often makes John Howard look like our great statesman, but there was a rash of resignations (seven altogether) in his first term. Short was assistant treasurer when it was revealed he’d granted a banking license to a subsidiary of a bank in which he held shares.

He resigned, and walked more or less straight into a three-year appointment as the Australian member of the executive board at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. He was then appointed as Australia’s special envoy to Cyprus

Santo Santoro

Santoro resigned as minister for ageing in mid-March 2007 after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose shareholdings in companies, some of which appeared to amount to conflicts of interest. Santoro, a Liberal, resigned from the Senate in April.

The following year he wandered into a lobbying gig and has stayed there ever since. Last we heard, he was offering Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo access to Santoro’s “best friend”, then-immigration minister Peter Dutton. According to a Four Corners/SMH investigation, Santoro was paid tens of thousands of dollars for arranging a meeting between the pair in 2016. 

Bronwyn Bishop 

After Bronwyn Bishop took a little taxpayer-funded helicopter ride, she eventually resigned from her role as speaker and was was dumped by Liberal preselectors. She then moved seamlessly into Sky News.

It was here — decked out in pearls and a fur stole, she complained about socialism (this has happened many times) and accused people with “a bit of depression” of “rorting” the disability pension.

Jim Cairns

In 1975, the “loans affair” (attempts to secure loans from Pakistani businessman Tirath Khemlani, rather than using the Treasury’s normal channels) claimed the scalps of deputy treasurer and deputy PM Jim Cairns, minerals and energy minister Rex Connor, and eventually the whole Whitlam government.

After politics, Cairns went into the counter-culture: he got into meditation, founded the ConFest bush retreats, and sold his self-published economics books outside Melbourne suburban markets.  

Of course, McKenzie might instead want to take a leaf or two from the book of her Coalition colleagues and just wait for the whole thing to blow over. As it turns out, this is remarkably easy to do even after a full year of scandal

Bridget McKenzie forgot about her gun club, but found time to declare other gifts. What gives?

Former federal sports minister Bridget McKenzie is under fire for failing to declare that she received a membership to the Wangaratta Clay Target Club at the time the club was granted $36,000 under the now infamous Community Sport Infrastructure program.

Her reason? The office of the now agriculture minister says she didn’t need to declare the gift, valued at $180 according to her office, because it was below the declaration threshold of $300. 

So, Crikey decided to check on McKenzie’s statement of registrable interests going back to August 2016 to see if the minister only ever declared gifts valued at over $300.

Apparently, not. We discovered dozens of examples which look to us to cost less than $300.

Here are some of them:

  • 13 kilos of Fuji Apples from Scott Brothers orchard in Tasmania
  • One Christmas ham from the Australian pork industry
  • One notebook from Liberal-aligned lobbying firm Bespoke Approach
  • One signed Spalding basketball presented by the Melbourne Boomers
  • Box of vitamins from Swisse
  • One bottle of Bobbie Burns 2016 Shiraz from the National Press Club
  • One bottle Clonakilla 2016 Shiraz from Lightfoot and Sons winery
  • One bottle of home block Chardonnay 2017, also from Lightfoot
  • A bottle of Tasmanian scotch, brand unspecified, say $100
  • Tickets to a 2015 Geelong AFL game.

Interestingly, McKenzie appears to have had troubles with the declaration rules.

Having first declared the gifts she was given, she had to later correct the record to name who gave the gift — which is, arguably, the entire point of a register.

McKenzie’s full list of declarations shows what an armchair ride life as minister can be. Sports bodies, mainly, and large corporations look after many of life’s necessities and a luxury or two. 

Telstra has donated State of Origin tickets. There are Melbourne Cup Tickets from Tabcorp and Seppelt. McKenzie received corporate tickets to the Australian Open Women’s final 2019 from Nine and Emirates Airlines.

Four dozen bottles of wine came from the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals. Virgin Airlines and Qantas donated lounge memberships. The Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association has provided a Fox subscription free of charge. And Credit Union Australia put up the readies for KFC Big Bash tickets. 

On top of this corporate largesse, McKenzie is paid $364,000 a year as a minister and as leader of the Nationals in the Senate. Plus she receives a $32,000 electorate allowance.

She holds the record for 2018 as the federal politician with the highest travel allowances which are tax free and are paid on top of her salary.

As reported here, McKenzie claimed for 217 nights in hotels, averaging more than $1400 a week — around $75,000 for the year — paid by the taxpayer. 

For most of the period examined by Crikey, McKenzie has declared only one property, a unit in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood which, as many have pointed out, seems to be a long way from rural Australia and her principal electorate office in Wodonga.

The property though is described as an investment, rather than her residence, with a mortgage, and potentially drawing negative gearing tax breaks.

Just over a week ago McKenzie added another property, also in Melbourne, also described as an investment property and also with a mortgage. Two properties, but neither called home.

How good is living off other people’s money?

Removal of asbestos, no way. New swizzle sticks, you bet! The other McKenzie spreadsheet

Another day, another spreadsheet. Hot off the heels of the ABC’s detailing (in technicolor) the sports clubs who clearly deserved a sports grant from Bridget McKenzie but didn’t get one, Crikey has unearthed a new list. This one would be funny if it weren’t so, well, sad. We think it might be the smoking gun. Read on:

Righting the wrong: could a class action against the sports rort deliver justice?

Well, as Crikey predicted, Agricultural Minister Bridget McKenzie isn’t likely to face consequences from within her party for doling out $100 million worth of sports community grants to organisations in seats likely to swing Liberal. She has Scott Morrison’s support and has rejected calls to resign. 

But repercussions may come from outside the government, with Slater and Gordon Lawyers announcing it is investigating a class action over the sports rort.

So just what would such a case look like?  

A one-of-a-kind class action

As it turns out, the entire sports grants program may be unconstitutional. Constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey has warned that the federal government lacks the power to hand out money to sports clubs. 

The Australian National Audit Office further found in its report into the rorts that McKenzie acted without legal authority, as only Sports Australia was permitted to approve the grant — not the minister.

Leading Slater Gordon’s class action investigation is practise group leader Andrew Baker, who told Crikey the case is potentially “unique”: his firm hopes to cover “several hundred” groups which missed out on funding.

“Any class action we pursue would be intended to cover all such groups, with the intention of putting them in the position they would have been in had the correct process been followed,” Baker said. If it goes ahead, the case is likely to be held in the Federal Court. 

Baker added that without a class action, most sports groups would be reluctant to fight the government as it would affect the possibility of future grants.

“The best-case scenario is that the groups that would have been funded under Sport Australia’s assessments are given the funds that they were originally recommended to receive,” Baker said. 

The stated aim of the grants program is to increase community participation in sport and physical activity.

But, as was revealed yesterday, McKenzie apparently determined that places like the Tea Tree Gully Golf Club — which plans to build a new foyer and install a lift to make the place more appealing as a wedding venue — was apparently more deserving of funding than, for example, the Coledale Waves Football Club — which is used by 1200 players each week and is in dire need of a new change room

“Every dollar that went to a club whose application should have been unsuccessful is a dollar that didn’t end up with a club that Sport Australia had identified and recommended for funding in the course of proper processes,” Baker said in a Slater and Gordon media release.

“These community organisations, clubs and groups have lost out because it appears public funds were used for political gain.”

Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Josh Bornstein has also offered to work pro bono for clubs that were denied funding. 

Any lawsuit would be long, painful and unprecedented 

Marque Lawyers managing partner Michael Bradley said he couldn’t think of any similar class actions. “It’s a new one … it’s unprecedented in terms of the concept and would involve some pretty novel legal arguments,” he said.

With the government looking at the rort from a political perspective and focusing on larger legal issues, Bradley predicted the class action was “pretty unlikely to get off the ground … the government would mitigate against the likelihood of it really going ahead”. 

But, he predicted, organisations screwed over by the rort could try to claim the money they would have been granted, or what it cost them to apply. (Coledale Waves said it spent more than 100 hours preparing its application.) 

“They could claim they were the victims of some sort of fraud or misrepresentation, or that it was a breach of contract and they were lied to,” Bradley said, adding that a case like this could drag on for years.

While any hopes for accountability and justice is likely to be drawn out and complicated, the Liberal government may be starting to learn that sometimes there are consequences for actions — and it only takes one novelty cheque to throw you under the bus.

The government ditched its own grants website to hide sports rorting

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.

Rorters, take note. Buying votes is tempting but it doesn’t seem to work

Of the many depressing features of the recent sports rorts scandal, perhaps the worst is its familiarity, given the striking parallels with the Ros Kelly whiteboard affair of the Keating government’s terminal phase in the mid-1990s.

Even allowing for the fact that standards have apparently fallen to the point where Bridget McKenzie looks likely to keep her job, one might have thought the Kelly precedent would have given McKenzie pause for thought as she oversaw the allocation of $100 million in a manner transparently tailored to boost the Coalition’s electoral prospects.

Her failure to do so offers a telling insight into how much political operators imagine they have to gain by enticing voters with expensive baubles.

Given the government’s success in winning a third term when it appeared to have so much going against it, it may be tempting to reach the disheartening conclusion that this outlook has been vindicated.

However, when the election result is analysed in detail, scant evidence emerges that McKenzie’s efforts did the Coalition any good at all.

At issue is the distribution of 684 grants out of the Community Sports Infrastructure fund, around two-thirds of which was allocated to specific clubs and local projects, with most of the rest going to local councils.

The table below accounts for the 20 electorates that did best out of the bargain, and provides as clear an indication as any of the lack of subtlety with which McKenzie went about her work.

Lest anyone think the program was all bad, grants targeting Indigenous communities lifted the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari to the top of the pile, despite it being a long shot proposition for the Coalition at the election.

After that though, the list is a clean sweep of conservative seats, including two the Liberals were hoping to win back from crossbenchers (one being Mayo, where the trouble all began).

Almost all were of the highest strategic importance, being on margins below the Australian Electoral Commission’s 6% threshold for designating a seat as marginal (including Corangamite and Dunkley, which were held by the Liberals but notionally Labor after the Victorian redistribution).

The exceptions at the upper end tended to be held by the Nationals, perhaps for the reasons noted here yesterday by Bernard Keane.

Comparison with the opposite extreme is instructive — the 20 seats that received the least amount of funding consisted of four the Coalition knew they wouldn’t lose, and 16 they knew they couldn’t win.

Did the sports rorts make a difference?

At first glance, it might be thought that the sports grant pork-barrel landed a few successes, with the average Coalition swing of 2.8% out of the top 20 comparing with a national result of 1.2%.

However, this is inflated by a couple of outliers: the north coast New South Wales seat of Page, where Nationals member Kevin Hogan enjoyed the second biggest Coalition swing in the state after Joel Fitzgibbon’s near-death experience in Hunter, and the north Queensland seat of Dawson, where George Christensen defied every political maxim going to pick up the second biggest swing in the country.

In country seats especially, electoral effects of sports club grants should be highly localised — and the deeper one burrows into the data, the harder it gets to discern any such effect.

When polling booth and sport grants data are aggregated into 2288 local regions designated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there turns out to be no correlation whatsoever between the amount of funding they received and how much they swung to or against the Coalition.

This should not actually come as a surprise, since the Coalition owed its win not to fortuitous patterns of voting in decisive seats, but to a 51.5% share of the national two-party vote.

In other words, this was an election won at the macro rather than the micro level — in particular, by the force of Scott Morrison’s adroit sloganeering against an unpopular opponent encumbered by an over-ambitious agenda.

As such, the sports grants affair stands testament not just to the deviousness of much of the political class, but also to its egotism in imagining that elections hinge upon ultimately inconsequential tactical manoeuvres cooked up in ministerial offices.

When did Australian politicians become incapable of shame?

Many are calling for Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie to resign, but very few believe it will actually happen.

A recurring theme in coverage of the sports rorting scandal is that shame — of the kind that say, led to former Labor sports minister Ros Kelly’s resignation — is in diminishing supply among the political class.

Kelly faced those same calls after doling out $30 million to electorates chosen by writing their names on a great big whiteboard, and rubbing out contenders. ALP seats received on average double the amount given to marginal Coalition seats. 

The only differences? Firstly, McKenzie allocated $100 million in funding to Coalition electorates or ‘targeted’ electorates. Second, Kelly stepped down after a parliamentary report into the scheme was released, whereas McKenzie has already dismissed calls to quit and refused to apologise.

‘We need a change in ethics’

University of Adelaide professor of public policy Adam Graycar told Crikey that not only are rorting practices not new, they’re also not technically illegal.

“We’ve seen processes disregarded, trust diminished and public value trashed — but no rules were broken and it will go on,” he said. 

What will happen, Graycar speculated, is the Coalition will point at Labor or the Greens and say they’ve done the same thing, before going on the backfoot and saying they’ve done nothing wrong.  

“We don’t need a change in law, we need a change in ethics.”

Legally, a minister can use their discretion to go against the committee’s advice on who should receive funding, Graycar said. But what is missing, he added, is accountability and transparency, forcing ministers to justify their decisions. “The law doesn’t need to change, just the implementation,” he said.

As far as legal mechanisms go, Greens democracy spokesperson Senator Larissa Waters told Crikey the Greens “want a stronger, enforceable ministerial code of conduct that would stop the use of public funds for blatantly political purposes.” She also argued for enforceable parliamentary standards, and a national integrity commission to clean up politics (pointing to bills she had introduced to that effect last year).

“The whole rotten stinking government has to go,” she added. The Greens will call for McKenzie’s resignation today.

Senator Katy Gallagher, Labor spokesperson for finance and the public services told Crikey that Labor would investigate the “apparent dodgy administration surrounding the awarding of these sports grants” and “pursue further questions that must be answered by the minister in public forums”.

‘Trashing of public value’ is not new 

Our long-lost environment minister Sussan Ley faced scrutiny for buying a luxury apartment while on a taxpayer-funded trip to the Gold Coast during her time as health minister in 2017. She defended the purchase as “not planned nor anticipated” and, as she did have one work-related meeting on the coast, did not break any rules. 

George Christensen (who, let’s not forget, called Crikey on his wedding night for a long-winded chat), earned the nickname “Jetset George” for spending an average of 10 weeks a year in the Philippines, charging taxpayers thousands. Save for some public scrutiny, the “member for Manila” walked away largely unscathed. 

In fact, the only minister who has fallen from grace for rorting the system in recent times is former Liberal parliamentary speaker Bronwyn Bishop.

Indeed, Morrison may be mindful that Tony Abbott’s initial support of then-speaker Bronwyn Bishop after her taxpayer-funded helicopter ride was a contributing factor to the sense of calamity and poor judgement that eventually brought Abbott down.

Bishop eventually resigned from her role, and was was dumped by Liberal preselectors only to be snatched up as a commentator for Sky News. It was here, without a hint of irony, she complained about socialism and accused people with “a bit of depression” of “rorting” the disability pension.

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