Sports rorts has been swept under the rug. It should be aired in the light

In the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively small potatoes right now.

Questions over the allocation of $100 million, on the same day it was revealed the country will be in debt to the tune around 1850 times that amount, might be brushed aside when considering the enormity of our present predicament.

But questions over the so-called ‘sports rorts’ controversy should not fade from the public memory, or be consigned to the media margins.

Sure, we’re dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic, and such are the strange times that government packages that dwarf the size of the ‘Community Sport Infrastructure Program’ go out the door with barely an eyebrow raised.

But it’s important scrutiny that cannot dim.

sports rorts spreadsheet

The colour-coded spreadsheet prepared by Senator McKenzie’s office before the federal election. Photo: ABC

If you’ve not been keeping up with the revelations from the Senate committee this week – considering news coverage rightly dominated by JobKeeper and JobSeeker and JobTrainer and budget updates and barrels of red ink splashed over treasury balance sheets – it would be understandable.

Keeping up with a political scandal, while 700,000 jobs are being lost and the government warns of generations of debt, isn’t easy.

But the startling revelations that have emerged from the Senate inquiry in just the past two days raise damning questions.

Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens has defended his investigation into former sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s handling of a grants program. Photo: AAP

Stephen Bartos, former deputy secretary of the finance department, said it was his understanding as a career bureaucrat that a minister simply cannot distribute money in the way it was done through this affair.

Appearing before the inquiry, he said the money should not have been allocated in the way it was.

“Ministers can’t spend money unless the Parliament has given them the authority … ministers just can’t spend as they wish,” he said.

The affair saw more than 70 per cent of projects that received funding in the program’s final phase not initially recommended by Sports Australia’s extensive review process and has since been derided by opponents of the Coalition as industrial-scale pork barrelling – funnelling public cash to marginal electorates ahead of what was expected to be a tight election.

Senator Bridget McKenzie, the sports minister at the time, fell on her sword over the controversy.

Hers was the only scalp claimed by the scandal.

She resigned as the Nationals’ deputy leader and from her new position as agriculture minister in February.

Senator McKenzie paid the price, but technically only on a matter of not disclosing her membership of a shooting club that received a paltry $36,000.

But little action has been taken over the wider affair, the cash splash on projects not recommended for funding by Sports Australia.

The bigger issue, of where taxpayer funds are spent and who gets to decide, remains unresolved.

Without proper scrutiny, this won’t be the last alleged pork barrel project of its type that we endure.

An auditor-general report ruled the program focused on marginal and target seats before last year’s election.

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens initially said in a submission to the inquiry that there were “significant shortcomings” in how the grants were decided, but on Wednesday said he spoke to just two people during his investigation into the affair.

The highly paid top bureaucrat confirmed he conducted “one interview with Senator McKenzie and then there was a phone call with the [chief executive officer] of Sport Australia [Kate Palmer]”, in his probe into the process, with some “evidence gathering as well”.


Labor senator Katy Gallagher questioned why Mr Gaetjens did not speak to more people as part of his report. Photo: AAP

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said Mr Gaetjens relied on “limited evidence” to dispute the auditor-general’s findings of bias.

Labor’s shadow sports minister, Don Farrell, slammed Mr Gaetjens’ two-week probe as a “sham self-investigation of [the] government’s super-sized Sports Rort.”

On Thursday, news broke that the affair will now potentially be aired in open court.

Maurice Blackburn lawyers will represent Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, whose grant application was knocked back despite meeting funding criteria.

The law firm hopes for it to be a “test case”, to consider the legality of the funding allocations and potentially for the entire program to be reconsidered.

Of course it’s easy to de-prioritise it against the background of a deadly virus, spiking unemployment, poverty and uncertainty – but it is a saga that refuses to go away and will be used to diminish the government’s credentials until properly resolved.

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