Sports Rorts — Can the government get any more pork on their fork?
Words by Felix Eldridge
‘Pork barrelling’ is the term used to describe targeted government spending in marginal electorates to improve the governing party’s chances of winning those seats. These spending measures take several forms, but infrastructure projects or community grants are the most common. Recently, the Federal Government has come under fire for using sporting club grants as a means of pork barrelling marginal seats.
In theory, sporting grants operated by the ‘Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program’ are administered by Sport Australia, which is an independent body that provides merit-based recommendations for the grant program. This program was charged with administering 100 million dollars of funding for late 2018 and early 2019. Unfortunately, the Liberal National Coalition has abused this program to splash extra cash in marginal seats so that the local MP or candidate could associate themselves with the grants and thus bring them undue popularity.
In fairness, pork barrelling is sometimes difficult to identify because some programs and projects that are good for the country / community are in marginal seats, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, this government rort is painfully obvious.
Perhaps it was because 54% of funding in the first round of grants went to marginal seats, despite marginal seats only making up 40% of Australian electorates? Perhaps it was because Sport Australia wrote to the then Minister for Sport, Senator McKenzie, warning her that the integrity of the program was being compromised and these concerns went unaddressed? Perhaps it was because government MPs (even the Prime Minister’s Office) had direct input as to which grants should be approved? Maybe it was the fact that over 40% of projects were deemed ‘ineligible for funding’ according to a Senate inquiry? And if you’re still not convinced, perhaps it was because the Minister’s office even colour coordinated the applications based on which party held the seat that the clubs were in.
Finally, the Commonwealth Auditor General’s report found that many of the successful applications were “not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious in terms of the published program guidelines”. This damning report identified several instances of the recommendations being brushed aside.
For example, an application in a marginal government seat with a merit rating of 50/100 by Sport Australia received half a million dollars in grant money (the highest possible grant available), while a different application in a safe seat with a 98/100 rating was knocked back. A separate club received funding for female change rooms, despite the club not having a female team.
This is outrageous for several reasons. Firstly it is unfair for the clubs that have wasted countless hours preparing detailed applications expecting to be judged fairly. Secondly it is unfair for the Government to abuse this system, intended to fund community sport, to help its re-election campaign.
To put the extent of two of the rorts into perspective, the seat of Corangamite in Victoria received 1.1 million dollars alone in grants while the seat of Gilmore in NSW received 1.4 million alone.
In addition, the Minister failed to declare that she was a member of one of the clubs that received a grant. Not only that, but she was given said membership ‘as a gift’. Regardless of whether or not this influenced her decision to give the club funding, it looks bad when a Minister receives membership of a club for free, does not tell anyone about it and within a few months bestows upon them a large grant.
Worse still, the announcement process itself was highly dodgy. Clubs often did not find out about their grant status until the local Coalition candidate announced it, novelty cheque in hand. While this concept of MPs hogging the credit is not ideal, often it was prospective candidates who were making the announcements. While it might be appropriate in some circumstances for a local MP to announce a community grant before the results were released, it is most improper for a prospective candidate to make such an announcement before the actual MP or the club were even notified.
If you think that this is the worst part, consider the following: In February 2019 in the seat of Mayo, the Liberal candidate Georgina Downer arrived at a local sporting club to announce a grant and presented them with a novelty cheque. The local MP wasn’t there, because she wasn’t invited.
This is a shocking abuse of power by an incumbent government and it was right that Senator McKenzie be sacked from the Ministry over it. But, despite the media furore and the sacking of a Minister, the Government has already benefited from the grants and it appears that no further heads will roll. While this outcome has been bruising for Senator McKenzie personally, the long-term toll on the government this early in the electoral cycle is probably negligible.
But this sports rorts saga issue isn’t over. Within a week of the resignation, a new scandal has broken regarding 150 million dollars of funding allocated to female changing rooms being misused. Allegedly, 120 million dollars of funding was instead diverted to build swimming pools in 11 marginal Coalition seats. 40% of the funding was even channelled into two seats, Corangamite and Pearce. There were no guidelines, no tender or application process and no scrutiny. This is more taxpayer money being spoon-fed to voters in marginal seats, an even more blatant attempt from the Government to pork barrel their way to victory.
Australia needs true accountability and independence. A National Integrity Commission would help with this, but community grant programs, such as sporting club grants, should be handled by independent commissions with ministerial intervention only possible in extraordinary cases under limited criteria.
While it is impossible to remove the practice entirely due to the fact that some grants and projects will end up going to marginal seats around election time, the Government should do everything it can to prevent the most obvious abuses of power.
For a nation struggling under federal government austerity and dealing with bushfires, droughts and a health crisis, a new swimming pool or change room isn’t going to help much. But hey, this level of pork barrelling gives real meaning to the phrase “The budget that brings home the bacon.”