‘Sportsgate’ scandal shows govt corruption runs deep

Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The “Sportsgate” scandal underscores the deep-seated corruption at the heart of Scott Morrison’s Coalition government. While it has rocked the country in recent weeks, the misuse of sports grants to wealthy, Liberal-linked sporting clubs took place months before the federal election last May.

The future of National Party deputy leader and former Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie is in serious doubt after the January 15 auditor-general’s report found “evidence of distribution bias in the award of grant funding” by the minister. The $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Program involved 684 grants and was awarded in three parts by McKenzie (December 2018, February 2019 and April 2019). 

The auditor-general’s report concluded that: “The award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice and that the successful applications were not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious in terms of the published program guidelines.”

Sports Australia received more than 2000 applications and assessed them against published criterion. The minister’s office then conducted a parallel assessment process “using other considerations”, the auditor-general said. Those considerations were key marginal or Coalition electorates in an election the Coalition thought it would lose.

Labor opposition sports spokesperson Senator Don Farrell condemned McKenzie’s intervention as “industrial-scale pork barrelling”.

The Australian National Audit Office report said: “The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the minister’s office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted by the Coalition’ at the 2019 election. Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed against the published program guidelines.”

Projects in these electorates applied for 36% of the funding, and received 47% of the amount approved in the first round. In the third round, a massive 73% of projects given funding were not those recommended by Sport Australia.

The Mosman Rowing Club in the electorate of Warringah — then held by Tony Abbott — received $500,000 and $200,000 went to the Lilli Pilli Football Club in Morrison’s electorate.

Those missing out included a tennis club in Fremantle, West Australia and the Coledale Waves soccer club in the Labor-held Illawarra region of NSW.

Senior Coledale Waves women’s player Emma Miles told the ABC last November that the club was growing fast, but was limited by the lack of lights, a poor playing surface and a single change room — currently being used for storage. “If there’s no room, we’ll often get changed outside,” she said.

The scandal escalated on January 22 when it was revealed that McKenzie had approved a $36,000 grant to a shooting club in Wangaratta, Victoria, last February without disclosing that she was also a member. She has dug herself in deeper, with her office saying there was nothing to disclose as the membership fee was less than $300.

Former Wallaby-turned-commentator Phil Kearns described the scandal as “a slap in the face for Olympic athletes that are absolutely battling going into an Olympic year”.

“A lot of this money went to rugby league and AFL clubs and, you know, a sport which gets over $2 billion in television rights, why are we giving them money?” he said on January 21.

The rorting of the grants program is widely seen as flagrant corruption, and the prime minister’s defence of McKenzie, along with her National colleagues, makes them complicit.

Many are asking how such blatant fraud can be accepted as a legitimate political option for a re-election campaign. Many want to draw the line on this kind of corruption, saying it must not become the “new normal”.

This scandalous misuse of money comes as anger and frustration at the government’s abject failure to manage the bushfire emergency and its aftermath deepens.

Legal experts are now questioning whether McKenzie blatantly broke the law. Professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney Anne Twomey said the minister’s actions may be unconstitutional. “What is astonishing about the latest sports-rorts affair is its brazenness, culminating in the assertion that ‘no rules were broken’,” Twomey told the Australian Financial Review on January 20. 

Law firm Slater and Gordon is now investigating a possible class action against the government by clubs whose grant applications were not successful. There are also growing calls for a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption ICAC to be established to fully probe the scandal.

The Labor Party, the Greens and several Senate crossbenchers have called for McKenzie’s resignation, or for her to be sacked. They will push for a Senate inquiry into the scheme when parliament re-convenes in early February.

Will Sportsgate bring down McKenzie or Morrison or both? We can work towards that by demanding MPs are not only prevented from interfering in community grant decisions, but also for a national ICAC with real powers to force accountability and penalties.

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