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'Massive failure': Sports rorts didn't improve Coalition's fortunes

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It is unclear that the Coalition obtained an advantage despite their attempts to do so with the sports rorts scheme (image via YouTube).

Not only did it reek of corruption, but the sports rorts fiasco also failed to translate into votes for the Coalition Government, writes Steve Bishop.

IT APPEARS THAT bribes totalling nearly $4 million offered by former Minister Bridget McKenzie with the involvement of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the sports rorts debacle to 17 targeted electorates in the 2019 election were rejected by voters in 10 of the seats.

And in five of the seats won by the Coalition, there were other factors which may well have had more influence than the sports rorts.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) discovered that grants worth $13 million were awarded to projects in 17 electorates targeted by the Coalition instead of grants totalling $9.2 million if decisions had been made 'on the basis of assessed merit'.

It is a matter of faith among many politicians that pork barrelling buys votes, but the rorting of the Community Sport Infrastructure Program can be added to a history of failed bribes.

An analysis of the most likely 17 marginal ALP, independent and minor party seats to have been targeted with bribes before the 2019 Federal Election by Morrison and McKenzie shows that the Coalition won only seven of them.

In two of these seven seats, it could be argued that Chisholm and Wentworth were always likely to return the Liberal Party which had won both in 2016 before losing control of them in the interim.

Ironically, in a third, Bass, Liberal MP Bridget Archer has denied sports grants of $700,000 awarded in her electorate played any part in her election victory.

A major factor in a fourth seat, Herbert in Queensland, was popular support for jobs promised by the proposed Adani coal mine.

And in a fifth, Longman, it has been suggested the electorate’s large number of retirees were influenced by the Coalition’s franking credits scare campaign.

But a massive state-wide collapse of support for the Queensland ALP with a primary vote of only 27%, the lowest in the nation, also had a major impact on the Herbert and Longman results.

Which, if Bridget Archer is to be believed, leaves just two of the Coalition gains (Braddon and Lindsay), where it is unclear if the sports rorts might have helped secure wins for the Coalition. So it would appear the Government has inflicted itself with a lot of pain for little if any gain. And it has further eroded trust in politicians.

Crucially, of the 10 seats in this analysis which were retained by the ALP and the Centre Alliance, seven not only rejected the bribes but swung against the Coalition.

The ANAO discovered in its audit of the program that:

'17 electorates held by Labor, minor parties or independents that were being ‘targeted’ by the Coalition were more successful than they would have been if funding had been awarded on the basis of assessed merit.'

And: 

'A total of 79 grants to the value of $13.0 million were awarded to projects located in those electorates, compared with the 54 grants to the value of $9.2 million that would have been awarded had funding decisions been consistent with the assessed merit of the competing applications.'

My request to the ANAO for the identity of the 17 targeted electorates was rejected. Under section 36 of its Act the ANAO is not allowed to provide audit evidence to anyone except in the course of an audit. 

And when I approached the Prime Minister's Office for the list I was referred to the ANAO.

But it is possible to make a logical assessment of the most likely seats. 

Before the 2019 election ABC psephologist Antony Green compiled a list of key marginal seats which included a total of 16 seats held by the ALP, minor parties and independents.

The results in these electorates were:

  • Bass: Lib win with 5.8% swing
  • Braddon: Lib win with 4.8% swing
  • Corangamite: held by ALP with 1% swing
  • Cowan: held by ALP with 0.2% swing
  • Dunkley: held by ALP with 1.7% swing
  • Griffith: held by ALP with 1.4% swing
  • Herbert: LNP win with 8.4% swing
  • Indi: held by Independent despite 4.1% swing to Liberals
  • Lindsay: Lib win with 6.2% swing
  • Lingiari: held by ALP despite 2.7% swing to Country Liberal Party
  • Longman: LNP win with 4.1% swing 
  • Lyons: held by ALP with 1.3% swing
  • Macnamara: held by ALP with 5% swing
  • Mayo: held by Central Alliance with 2.2% swing, despite the notorious publicity photo arranged by Liberal candidate Georgina Downer when an award of $127,373 was made to Yankalilla Bowling Club.
  • Solomon: held by ALP despite 3% swing to Country Liberal Party
  • Wentworth: Lib win despite 16.4% swing against the Party 

So which electorate could the 17th be? The obvious contender would be Chisholm, won in 2016 by Liberal Julia Banks who resigned from the party in 2018 to sit as an independent. It was won by the Liberals despite a two-party swing of 2.34% against the party.

The ANAO also reported:

'Nine of the ten electorates that were approved to receive the greatest amount of funding were either a Marginal electorate or an electorate the Minister’s Office had identified as being ‘targeted’ by the Coalition.'

So how involved was Morrison?

The fact that the Prime Minister’s Office was complicit in the process was mentioned several times during the Senate Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants hearing which was told Minister McKenzie and her office received “input from various sources, including the Prime Minister's Office”.

The transcript of the hearing includes:

Senator Janet RICE: Based on the evidence available to you, what parties did the Prime Minister's Office make representations on behalf of?

 

[Brian Boyd, an ANAO executive director]: The only ones we saw were Coalition.

 

Senator RICE: Were they are all [sic] on behalf of MPs?

 

Mr Boyd: Some were from candidates, as in people that were hoping to be elected to Parliament and weren't yet in parliament.

 

Mr Boyd: …the Prime Minister's Office had indicated to the minister's office that there were some projects which had missed the application cut-off deadline and that wished to be submitted to be considered under the program.

 

Senator RICE: Would you say that's fairly unusual given that the applications had already closed?

 

Mr Boyd: It's certainly not consistent with what the guidelines said would happen.

 

Senator RICE: So were there representations from the Prime Minister's Office?

 

Mr Boyd: The representations particularly related to rounds 2 and 3 and most particularly to round 3.

There is no better example of pork-barrelling not working than the massive amount offered by Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to voters in his Ashgrove electorate in the 2015 Queensland State Election.

Newman promised more than $18 million in funding for Ashgrove, nearly three times more than what was being promised for the seat of Brisbane ($6.5M), in second place in the bribery stakes for city electorates.

A poll of Ashgrove residents found many were either put off or indifferent to Newman's pork-barrelling tactics. And a Seven News poll found that nearly 30% of Ashgrove voters said it had actually made them less likely to back the Liberal National Party. About half said the money had no bearing on their voting intentions and a third said Ashgrove had received more than its fair share of funding since the previous state election.

Despite the massive bribery, the one-term MP and Premier was so much on the nose with local voters that he was booted out of office with a 10% swing against him.

And perhaps the most blatant example of pork barrelling in living memory in Australia occurred in the dying days of the Queensland National Party Government in 1989. It produced what it called a “Special Electorate Works Program".

As Administrative Service Minister Ron McLean told the Queensland Parliament in 1990:

The program was special because it poured taxpayers' money into National Party electorates. Out of 292 projects on the program, only one was in a Labor electorate, and that was jointly funded by the Commonwealth Government. Out of $27m which was to be spent, only $200,000 was destined for a Labor electorate.

Despite this, the National Party lost 20 of its 46 seats in a landslide win for Labor.

It seems the only way to stop such a waste of public money is to create watchdogs with a powerful bite at every level of government.

You can read more by Steve Bishop at stevebishop.net

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