Steven Miles
Steven Miles

Why minister must resign over sports grants scandal

IT is with almost comical regularity that Australian politicians keep getting caught out abusing funding meant for community sporting organisations in need.

In fact, the terms "sports grants" and "rorts" have become so synonymous with each other that - sadly - some voters probably expect at least some degree of good old fashioned pork-barrelling to occur when such a scheme is unveiled.

And that is a real shame, because such grants schemes can be great for local communities - delivering the types of facilities that local people actually benefit from, an example of government spending that is actually meaningful.

The standard bearer for politicians misusing such schemes remains the "sports rorts affair" that engulfed the Keating government in the mid-1990s when sports minister Ros Kelly talked about how a "great big whiteboard" was used to divvy up $30 million in grant monies.

Mick de Brenni is in hot water over the sport grants scandal. Photo: Dan Peled
Mick de Brenni is in hot water over the sport grants scandal. Photo: Dan Peled

Eventually Ms Kelly was forced to resign.

Then earlier this year along came federal coalition minister Bridget McKenzie, who - it was revealed - had used her ministerial discretion to award grants under a $100 million program to marginal and targeted seats ahead of the 2019 federal election.

Like Ms Kelly before her, the then deputy Nationals leader tried to hold on to her job but eventually resigned in the wake of public pressure.

 

Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign over her use of ministerial discretion to award sports grants before the 2019 federal election. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign over her use of ministerial discretion to award sports grants before the 2019 federal election. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

 

And now on the eve of another election, a new chapter in the annals questionable sports grants is being written, this time in Queensland - with Palaszczuk government Sports Minister Mick de Brenni the subject of a damning report by the state's Auditor-General.

So far, Mr de Brenni is sticking with saying he's done nothing wrong.

And his leader, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, is standing beside him.

Yet the comparisons with what the Queensland Audit Office has revealed and the previous inquiries by its federal counterpart are obvious for all to see.

Here are the facts: Auditor-General Brendan Worrell has uncovered a lackadaisical approach to internal approval processes, uncovering 33 examples where Minister de Brenni altered departmental recommendations with an apparent bias towards Labor electorates.

The two grant schemes in question - Get Playing Places and Spaces and Female Facilities Program - were in theory very worthy initiatives as they sought to ensure smaller sporting clubs that cannot raise capital on their own get access to funding to build facilities.

Mr Worrall also found the Minister made all decisions himself relating to the Active Community Infrastructure Kickstart grants in June 2019, selecting 46 applications from a list of 136 approved applicants provided by the department.

The reasons for his decisions were not documented.

 

Sports Minister Mick de Brenni has failed to explain why advice over the grants was incorrect. Picture: Attila Csaszar
Sports Minister Mick de Brenni has failed to explain why advice over the grants was incorrect. Picture: Attila Csaszar

 

However, it appears Mr de Brenni - whose ministerial achievements can so far be at best described as ill-defined - set about trying to mirror the efforts of fellow sports minister Ms Kelly (his decisions were made prior to the revelations about Senator McKenzie's approvals).

The Auditor-General reported that when Mr de Brenni intervened "the department did not produce adequate records relating to the awarding of grants" and the process "has not met the Queensland Government requirements for record keeping of decision-making".

The report found that "change in recommended grants resulted in grants awarded to Australian Labor Party electorates increasing from 44 to 68 per cent, while Liberal National Party electorates' share of awarded grants decreased from 43 to 28 per cent".

And don't you worry, Mr de Brenni even made sure his own marginal seat of Springwood didn't miss out - with the report finding "two of the grant recipients approved by the minister but not recommended by the department were in his electorate".

In his published correspondence with Mr Worrell, Mr de Brenni argued the program afforded him "ministerial discretion" and the "community's expectation" would be that he should intervene when the advice was incorrect.

Yet he failed to explain exactly how the advice had been incorrect.

The Auditor-General also revealed the processes were amended in February to ensure the director-general became the decision maker, instead of the minister.

That was, unsurprisingly, around the same time Senator McKenzie resigned for not declaring she was a member of a club that she gave a grant to.

It would probably be in vain to believe that sports grant schemes will ever be cleaned up in favour of more transparent processes.

But clearly - on the eve of what will be a hard-fought election for Labor - Mr de Brenni should resign.

Originally published as Why minister must resign over sports grants scandal


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