Pork barrelling has a long and inglorious history in Australian politics. Directing taxpayer money to projects that parties hope will win them votes – as opposed to sharing it fairly where it is most needed – has spawned scandals on both sides of the parliamentary divide.
So when, in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election, a Liberal candidate presented a $127,373 grant in the form of giant novelty cheque to a South Australian bowling club, the blowback was swift. Photos posted to Georgina Downer’s Facebook page showed the political hopeful for Mayo raising a glass of champagne with members of the Yankallila bowling club.
The sitting MP was not impressed. “In more than a decade of politics I’ve never seen a TAX-PAYER funded grant delivered by cheque with a candidate’s face and name on it,” Rebekha Sharkie tweeted. “Rather desperate and misleading.”
Downer defended her actions to local ABC Adelaide radio, saying she was “not presenting commonwealth money” because the cheque was not legal tender.
But Labor immediately called on the auditor general to investigate the Coalition’s community sport infrastructure program.
The scathing report that emerged in early 2020 led to a scandal that became known as sports rorts, the resignation of a cabinet minister – and a lot of legwork for Guardian Australia’s then chief political correspondent, Sarah Martin.
“I knew it was going to be bad,” Martin says, citing “mutterings in the corridors” of Parliament House in the days before the findings dropped. “There were definitely people within government who were preparing.”
The auditor general painted a damning picture of distributional bias, with the Coalition almost entirely ignoring Sport Australia’s merit-based rankings of viable projects and instead funnelling $100m into marginal and priority seats.
In the days that followed Martin trawled through the auditor general’s 76-page report “really, really thoroughly” – footnotes included – then fired off lists of questions to federal departments and began contacting sports clubs across the country.
“It was a matter of going through the spreadsheets and looking at which clubs received grants and seeing where the political interest and conflict existed,” she says.
A tipoff from a member of the public led her to reveal that just weeks before the election a rugby club in the then MP Christopher Pyne’s marginal Adelaide seat won a $500,000 grant for upgrades including new female change rooms – despite not having a women’s team.
And the office of the sports minister, Bridget McKenzie, approved nine grants in key seats that it asked Sport Australia to assess after applications closed, even though the agency had warned it was “not appropriate” or fair to accept the applications.
Further digging uncovered that the Coalition had spent a separate $150m sports grant fund – the female facilities and water safety stream program – without opening it to public applications. Just $10m of that money went to rural areas.
Martin had already been looking into the government’s regional jobs and investment program, itself the subject of another searing indictment from the Australian National Audit Office.
“Unfortunately, there is to a certain extent, acceptance of pork barrelling,” Martin says.
In 1994 Labor’s Ros Kelly quit Paul Keating’s ministry in the first sports rorts affair, after revealing that funding for sporting groups had been handed out based on discussions around a whiteboard in her office.
“The key problem is you have this conflict,” Martin says. “The department goes through a rigorous merit-based assessment process, makes recommendations, and the government chooses to blatantly ignore it and say, ‘We’ve got our own spreadsheet with margins of electorates, which is more important than whether or not the projects are any good.’”
In the case of sports rorts, the controversy and the drip-drip-drip of revelations grew more and more damaging for Scott Morrison’s government.
“It bled out of Canberra,” she says, “and actually cut through into the real world.”
She remembers the day the Department of Health’s responses on the $150m grant program finally came through. “I’d been going insane, trying to get information from the department about it,” she says.
“After days of back and forth, they finally sent me some answers at 7pm on a Wednesday night. It was the last thing I felt like doing but thankfully, we got the story out, despite their best efforts.”
Ultimately McKenzie fell on her sword amid outrage about a $500,000 grant to a Coalition colleague’s Northern Territory gun club, for which she was found to be in breach of ministerial standards. It also emerged that she approved a grant of $36,000 to another shooting club without disclosing that she was a member.
“I maintain that at no time did my membership of shooting sports clubs influence my decision making, nor did I receive any personal gain,” she said after announcing her resignation. “However, I acknowledge that my failure to declare my memberships in a timely manner constituted a breach of the prime minister’s ministerial standards.”
Martin says: “When a minister is engulfed in that sort of scandal, it’s often the war of attrition – all these stories that show terrible decisions and blatant pork barrelling and keeps the pressure on.
“Bam, bam, bam – every day there’s another story about how outrageous this program was, and the government is always calculating, ‘How damaging is this? Can we just ride it out?’
“McKenzie’s head had to roll. But I don’t think that’s because they believe they did anything wrong. It’s just that they calculated that the media coverage was becoming too damaging.”
She recalls asking Morrison at the National Press Club whether he believed it was appropriate for public funds to be used for political gain.
“It was quite an awkward confrontation with him,” she says. “By that stage, the rot had started to set in a little bit. Once McKenzie resigned he attempted to stem the damage … but I think that stench still stuck.”
And what has changed, Martin says, is the level of scrutiny now applied to grant funding in marginal seats. In the lead-up to last year’s election, she says, both sides of politics had become “hyper-vigilant”.
“Obviously, it didn’t stop them doing it, but it meant that there was some sunlight around it,” Martin says. “They were more on guard about that ending up being the issue, weighing that up against the benefit of the pork barrelling itself.
“And all those clubs that missed out who had good projects were right to be annoyed at the government. You can’t underestimate that grassroots reaction of feeling ripped off.”
Guardian Australia was tracking 2022’s election commitments “pretty much in real time”, a huge amount of work that drilled into small and marginal seats.
This work revealed that some of the grant recipients in the sports rorts saga received even more funding in the lead-up to the election.
“I don’t know whether we would have had the resources to do that had all of this not preceded it,” Martin says. “We recognised it as an area of priority and of scrutiny.”
The findings were not surprising – both sides were still favouring marginal seats – just not quite so blatantly.
“I remember an old mentor of mine saying: ‘Every seat in the country should be marginal,’” Martin says. “That’s the only way around this.
“It’s unfortunately not the case. But maybe it should be.”
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