Michael Pascoe: #Sportsrorts – the closer you look, the worse it appears

Michael Pascoe writes that while we're distracted by coronavirus headlines, the sports rorts saga continues to fester.

Michael Pascoe writes that while we're distracted by coronavirus headlines, the sports rorts saga continues to fester. Photo: TND

No matter how hard he tries to ignore it, how much sophistry goes into crafting his weasel words, Scott Morrison’s #sportsrorts scandal isn’t going away.

It may be swamped by coronavirus headlines now, but the stench of defrauding volunteer sporting clubs continues to fester.

And the closer you care to look at #sportsrorts, the worse it appears.

The politically colour-coded spreadsheets tossed back and forth between Bridget McKenzie’s and Scott Morrison’s offices only tell part of the story.

Another set of spreadsheets prepared by a retired Excel nerd shows up both the petty politics of the rorting and the bigger picture of how the Sports Minister and Prime Minister targeted $100 million worth of taxpayers’ money in last year’s election.

sports rorts emails

Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign while Scott Morrison continues to be dogged by the #sportsrorts controversy. Photo: AAP/TND

The disclosures range from a Labor electorate that failed to win a single dollar from Senator McKenzie’s slush fund despite having one of the more highly rated applications, to the “coincidental” windfalls for seats the Coalition was most interested in and Coalition seats doing overwhelmingly better than Labor electorates.

The numbers come after the ongoing exposure of the close involvement of the Prime Minister’s office – something Scott Morrison has long denied.

As The Canberra Times reported of the Australian National Audit Office revelations earlier this month:  At 12.45pm (on April 10), the Prime Minister’s office emailed Senator McKenzie’s office to ask that a $500,000 grant in the seat of Kennedy – held by renegade independent MP Bob Katter – be dropped and the same amount instead be given to the Hawthorn Malvern Hockey Centre. The centre is in the electorate of Kooyong, held by Liberal frontbencher Josh Frydenberg.

Senator McKenzie’s office resisted, claiming the Kennedy project was “a very important one for the region” and the sport minister was due to visit the seat with the Liberal National Party candidate who had been lobbying for the money.

The sport minister’s office relented after the Prime Minister’s office pointed out the project had already received $3 million in funding through a separate grants program.

In the #sportsrorts big-picture category, Labor won 45 per cent of the seats, but those 68 electorates received only 32 per cent of the cash – 29 per cent below “par”.

(You could theorise here about Labor electorates tending to be less financially well-endowed and therefore in greater need, but we’ll stick to the hard numbers for now.)

The Coalition won 51 per cent of the seats – and its 77 electorates snared 62 per cent of the grant dollars – 22 per cent above par.

But the most disproportionate allocation happened to flow to the six seats won by independents and minor parties: 4 per cent of the seats won 7 per cent of the money – 75 per cent more than a proportionate allocation.

Two seats blew out the independents’ average way above the national average of $664,000.

The largest was $1.68 million for Victoria’s Indi – a seat the Liberal Party fought hard to try to win from a new independent candidate, Helen Haines. The 4.1 per cent swing was not enough.

The other was $1.2 million for Mayo – the ancestral seat Georgina Downer failed to regain from the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie.


The infamous image of Liberal candidate for Mayo Georgina Downer handing over a novelty cheque to the Yankalilla Bowling Club. Photo: ABC

It was Georgina Downer’s infamous Liberal Party giant cheque stunt that first drew attention to the nefarious nature of the community sports grants scheme, resulting in the Auditor-General’s investigation.

As it turned out, there was a 2.6 per cent swing away from the Liberal Party to Ms Sharkie on a two-party preferred basis.

Larger-scale political targeting is inferred by the way the money flowed on a state basis to where it was needed most: Queensland.

As has been well reported, Queensland effectively gave the Coalition its majority.

Queensland has 30 seats, 36 per cent fewer than New South Wales – but Queensland sporting clubs were given $21.1 million in grants, only 12 per cent less than NSW.

Labor held six Queensland seats – 20 per cent of the total.

Clubs in those Labor seats received only 12 per cent of the Queensland funding.

Cathy o'Toole

Labor’s Cathy O’Toole won Herbert by just 37 votes in 2016, but lost it in 2019 to Liberal candidate Phillip Thompson. Photo: AAP

Labor lost two Queensland seats to the Coalition, Herbert and Longman.

Herbert scored $1.4 million in grants, the second highest of any Queensland seat.

Longman scored below average via #sportsrorts – just $500,000.

But like Bob Katter’s Kennedy, it has done extremely well out of community development grant scheme, which is another whole story of dubious pork barrelling.

Longman’s half-million-dollar sports grant went to a single club whose website boasts: “Caboolture Sports Club is one of Queensland’s best gaming venues!

“Our gaming room features a variety of your favourite pokies, with 295 of the latest gaming machines including popular games such as Lightning Link & Dragon Link, as well as some of the all-time favourites.

“Coupled with outstanding service from our team of dedicated gaming hosts and wide range of exciting promotions running throughout the week, Caboolture Sports Club has something for everyone.”

Queensland wasn’t the luckiest state in playing #sportsrorts though. South Australia’s 10 electorates averaged $1.1 million each – two-thirds more than the national average.

No doubt it was a coincidence that the Sport Australia team trying to run the program was based in Adelaide.

Within the South Australian carve up, the anti-Labor bias of grants continued.

The Liberal Party has 40 per cent of the seats but 54 per cent of the pork barrel.

Labor has 50 per cent of the seats, but those seats received only 35 per cent of the funding.

New South Wales fared worst for sports grants – 47 electorates but only $24 million, an average of $511,000.

Senator McKenzie’s home state, Victoria, received $25.2 million over 38 electorates, an average of $664,000 – 30 per cent more than NSW electorates.

But the lopsided political carve up was consistent in both.

In NSW, Labor has 24 seats of the 47 – 51 per cent – but 41 per cent of the sports dollars.

The Coalition has 22 seats – 47 per cent – but 59 per cent of the money.

In Victoria, Labor has 21 of 38 seats – 55 per cent – but those seats received 42 per cent of the cash.

The Coalition’s 15 seats – 39 per cent – copped 50 per cent.

The discrepancy was greatest in Western Australia.

Labor’s five WA seats account for 31 per cent of the 16 electorates but the Morrison/McKenzie team accorded them just 13 per cent of the state’s cash – less than half what they proportionately might have expected.

The Liberal Party’s 69 per cent of seats received 87 per cent of the money.

And within WA, two seats deserve special mention.

While the Liberal seats averaged $899,000 each, Anne Aly’s Labor seat of Cowan landed just one grant worth $50,000 – and that was for the Western Australian Smallbore Rifle Association Inc. Yes, Bridget McKenzie’s favoured sport of shooting.

But wait, there’s less.

Matt Keogh’s seat of Burt stands out from the other 150 electorates because it did not receive a cent in Morrison/McKenzie #sportsrorts funding.

That is despite a City of Gosnells application scoring 83 points on the Sport Australia assessment, a score that without political interference would have landed the money.

It was only in the territories and Tasmania that coalition seats didn’t receive clear advantage over Labor seats.

The coalition has no seats in the ACT or Northern Territory while Tasmania was close to proportionate – the Labor party have two of the five seats and 39 per cent of the money, the Liberal party two seats and 37 per cent. Independent Andrew Wilkie’s seat of Clark was ahead with 24 per cent.

In fairness, while Labor seats on average fared much worse, it was possible for a Coalition seat to do poorly.

Paul Fletcher’s Bradfield, the Coalition’s safest metropolitan seat, managed just one grant of $2400 – for the Lindfield Tennis Club on Sydney’s leafy north shore.

The National Party’s worst effort was in David Gillespie’s NSW seat of Lyne – $54,850 spread over two grants.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be in a safe seat.

Burt and Cowan, Bradfield and Lyne clearly did not hold the interest of  Scott Morrison’s office.

As the ANAO disclosed, the Prime Minister’s office was riding some electorates up to and beyond the moment the election was called.

The Canberra Times report mentioned Senator McKenzie’s office sending Mr Morrison’s office two worksheets the day before the election was called.

Among other things, they included details of the proposed $500,000 grant in Kennedy that the PMO subsequently wanted stopped.

The government went into caretaker mode at 8.30am on April 11.

Senator McKenzie’s staff sent the new list to Sport Australia with the requested change 16 minutes later.

At 8.54am, the Prime Minister’s Office asked for the list to be provided in Excel form instead of a PDF, with the rationale: “We need to be able to cross check against our list and also be able to pull individual projects out to coordinate announcements and material from CCHQ [Coalition Campaign Headquarters].”

After a back-and-forth, Senator McKenzie’s office agreed to supply the spreadsheet at 12.04pm, saying “there are a couple of mistakes which we are fixing – we were just missing a couple of additional projects”.

The final version of the spreadsheet was sent to the Prime Minister’s office at 12.35pm and to Sport Australia at 12.43pm.

No, #sportsrorts won’t disappear.

And there were other pork barrelled programs with many more dollars involved – but that is another story.

Disclosure: The spreadsheets this article relies on were prepared by Vince O’Grady, a former telecommunications industry executive and an active ALP member. He manually built the spreadsheet by matching the successful grants with their electorates. Once in Excel, the state and political party totals are readily calculated.

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