If Bridget McKenzie survives the sports grants scandal with her ministry intact, it will be a miracle. To be sure, we live in an era of political miracles, but if she, the Nationals and Scott Morrison think it reasonable to tough or bluff this one out, it speaks not to an era of enlightenment but an era of dangerous befuddlement where everyone has collectively lost complete track of what is right and what is wrong.
What Auditor-General Grant Hehir's report reveals is a minister who used a hurriedly put together program of grants for sports groups as a giant pork-barrelling opportunity ahead of the last election.
Rather than trying to pretend otherwise, her office created its own spreadsheet - colour-coded by party - to analyse the spread of grants based on who held the seats, which seats were marginal for the Coalition and which were being "targeted" by the Coalition. Her office recorded - as it busily decided how to spend $100 million in taxpayers' funds, in blithering disregard for the assessments and recommendations that were coming from the public service - that it had "spoken directly to other Members and Duty Senators and some cross-bench on key priorities - with a priority on marginal and target seats".
Money was thrown at voters in three rounds: December 2018, February 2019 and April 2019, the final hunk of largesse just a week before the caretaker period. In the first round, projects in McKenzie's spreadsheet of "marginal" and "targeted" electorates applied for 36 per cent of the funding and received 47 per cent.
By the end of the third round, nine of the 10 projects which received the biggest grants were in marginal or targeted electorates. The 17 "targeted" electorates received 79 grants, instead of the 54 they should have received if decisions had been made according to the merit criteria.
Of the 684 projects that got funding, 417 were below the threshold if projects had been ranked according to merit. Three hundred projects - almost half the total - were not recommended by the department, but were approved anyway.
McKenzie's office got more blatant in each round of funding as election eve loomed. In the first round, nine projects not recommended by the department were nevertheless approved. In the February round, it was 124 projects - outnumbering the recommended projects that won funding. By the April round, recommendations and approvals had careened into a mad inverse relationship. Of the 228 projects approved by the minister in this round, 167 had not been recommended.
What could have been going on in the minds of the minister and her staff?
In the audit report, they seem to be implying that they were trying to control and limit pork-barrelling. It's a confusing idea, but fits with the confusion that seems to have settled like a smoke haze over the modern democratic understanding of process and probity.
McKenzie's then chief of staff told the Audit Office, "We were sensitive to the accusations of pork barrelling so we were very conscious of projects for the Nationals, as the National Party Deputy Leader, for Victoria as Senator for Victoria or with Independents as her Electorate Office was in Indi so we made sure that we were not over represented in these areas".
Or, in other words, we massaged grants according to who held the seat.
McKenzie, a former teacher who is now the Nationals' deputy leader, was bald-faced and misleading in her justifications on Thursday.
"There is absolute focus by Sport Australia now on addressing the issues highlighted ... They've done that swiftly. And all credit to them," she said, in an attempt to shift blame that will leave those public servants livid.
"There were more projects supported and funded in Labor seats than if that ministerial discretion hadn't been deployed," she said, without mentioning the finding that those Labor seats were ones the Coalition was targeting in the election campaign.
"No rules were broken," she said, ignoring the auditor highlighting the lack of clear rules as a problem, with Sport Australia not part of the normal Commonwealth grants rules, and, worse, the lack of clear legal authority for the minister to be making the grants decisions in the first place.
"No project that received funding was not eligible," she said, ignoring the fact that decisions about whether projects were "eligible" were sometimes inconsistent and, more seriously, misleadingly focusing on "eligibility" rather than whether projects were funded according to their ranking.
One of the problems the grants were designed to fix was the lack of toilets and change rooms for female athletes, she declared (correctly), ignoring the audit finding that two-ranked projects, scoring 98 and 94, to build new unisex change rooms and facilities, both missed out, and overall 34 per cent of projects to address gender inequality were funded, the same success rate as projects that didn't address the issue.
"I will continue to use taxpayers' funds appropriately and distribute it according to the approved guidelines," she said, as though she hadn't just done precisely the opposite.
The "sports rorts" headlines will have revived memories for long-time political watchers of the Ros Kelly whiteboard affair, where the Labor sports minister shortlisted sports grants on a whiteboard in her office.
In 1994, John Howard, not yet party leader, told Parliament: "the practice has almost invariably been that a minister resigns when his or her continued presence is causing damage and embarrassment to that government", a piece of self-advice Howard was to follow many times over when he became prime minister and forced a series of resignations on his wayward ministry. Kelly tried to fight it out, but as veteran political columnist Alan Ramsay wrote, she lasted just three more weeks after Howard's unsolicited advice before resigning from Paul Keating's frontbench.
If McKenzie survives until Parliament resumes in three weeks, the government will find its start to 2020 subsumed by a scandal, just as it ended 2019 with Angus Taylor and his doctored documents. The Taylor case is still playing out, but his strategy of trying to simply idiot-face his way through with implausible denials did not work. In the same way, McKenzie might think she can simply invert reality whenever the topic comes up, but when the Auditor-General makes a finding as simple and damning as "there was evidence of distribution bias in the award of grant funding", she has nowhere to hide.
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