Junk Explained: How The Government Tried To Buy The Election With Giant Novelty Cheques

An audit has slammed the government, saying they ignored deserving communities when giving out $100 million in funding in favour of marginal seats they wanted to win in the election.

Georgina Downer Yankalilla Bridget McKenzie

It all looks pretty boring at first glance — the government gave out $100 million of sports grants, and some people aren’t happy.

Why should we care that the government splashed some cash to get little Susan’s soccer team some new gear, or young Johnny’s town a better swimming pool? Because, as a new report has found, by doing so they ignored deserving communities, instead giving out the $100 million to marginal seats they wanted to woo in order to win in the election.

Now the government has been accused of using the taxpayer-funded program as a slush fund for its re-election campaign, and the scandal may cost one minister her job.

Alright, What Report Is Everyone Talking About?

Yesterday Australia’s Auditor-General Grant Hehir released a report that didn’t mince words — it flat out accused the government of bias.

The scathing report looked into the government’s Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program, which was supposed to fund better sports facilities and encourage more Aussies to get involved in physical activity.

Sport Australia received more than 2,000 applications, and made a list of which ones they believed deserved the funding based on merit.

They sent their recommendations to Bridget McKenzie, the Sports Minister at the time, but her office ignored this and instead focused on areas where they wanted to win in the election.

“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,” the report said.

The grants were awarded in three rounds; December 2018, February 2019 and April 2019. The federal election happened a month later and the Liberals remained in power.

Bridget McKenzie is now the Nationals’ Deputy Leader, and is refusing to apologise.

What Else Does The Report Say?

Of the 684 grants that McKenzie approved, overall 61% did not meet the merit criteria from Sport Australia.

In round one 41% of the approved projects were not on Sport Australia’s recommended list; that rose to 70% and then 73% in rounds two and three.

“There was evidence of distribution bias in the award of grant funding,” the report said.

“The Minister’s Office drew upon considerations other than those identified in the program guidelines, such as the location of projects, and also applied considerations that were inconsistent with the published guidelines.”

“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.”

The report also says it’s not obvious what legal basis McKenzie had to approve the funding. This morning she defended herself on ABC radio, saying no rules were broken.

“The reality was there were many hundreds of meritorious projects that we just didn’t have the funding available for,” she said.

How Did A Giant Novelty Cheque Spark The Investigation?

Last February a bowling club in the small South Australian town of Yankalilla received $127,373 as part of the program.

Usually when a taxpayer-funded grant is presented, the local MP is the one who presents it. That would have been Rebekha Sharkie, the Member for Mayo who hails from the Centre Alliance.

Instead, they asked the Liberal candidate Georgina Downer (yes, the daughter of former Liberal leader Alexander Downer) to present the giant cheque, and even slapped the Liberal party logo and a picture of her face on it for good measure.

That was enough for our shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to ask for an investigation.

“I query how it is possible for Ms Downer, the unsuccessful candidate for the 2018 Mayo by-election and an unelected candidate for the upcoming federal election, to misuse a taxpayer-funded grant in this fashion,” he wrote at the time.

“It is completely inappropriate and unacceptable for Ms Downer and the Liberal Party to treat taxpayers’ money as if it were their own, and to deceive Australians about the true source of this taxpayer-funded grant.”

People with memories long enough to go back that far are drawing comparisons to the “sports rorts affair” of 1993-94, which lead to sports minister Ros Kelly resigning.

But with McKenzie digging her heels in and Scott Morrison remaining silent it remains to be seen what — if anything — happens next.

Picture: Georgina Downer — Liberal for Mayo/Facebook