Scott Morrison’s sports rorts

| March 18, 2022

At Scott Morrison’s first media conference of the 2019 election campaign, he reiterated one of his conservative-populist slogans about personal responsibility: “I believe in a fair go for those who have a go.”

On election night he channelled Menzies’ “forgotten people” and Howard’s “battlers” by claiming “quiet Australians” had won a “great victory“.

Thousands of the Australians whom Morrison referenced already “had a go” by applying for grants in his government’s community sport program. Many later discovered they never got a “fair go” because the government manipulated the scheme. Instead of redressing what became known as the “sports rorts” scandal, Morrison engaged in further hubris that is likely to continue on the 2022 campaign trail.

The government perverted the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant program (CSIGP) which was under the purview of Sport Australia (SA). This statutory agency is responsible for grassroots sport and is supposed to function at arm’s length from the Minister of Sport.

In 2018 SA received over 2,000 applications that were specifically designed to boost participation in community sport. Officials evaluated all proposals on merit and recommended only funding those with scores of at least 74/100. Then Minster Bridget McKenzie dispensed $100 million for over 600 projects with a maximum of $500,000 for each application between December 2018 and April 2019.

In January 2020 a media frenzy occurred after the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released a withering report on the management of the CSIGP. Labor’s shadow Minister of Sport accused the government of “industrial-scale pork barrelling”. The scandal then deepened after investigative stories and Senate inquiries revealed that apparatchiks in the offices of Morrison and McKenzie used colour-coded spreadsheets to alter SA’s merit-based decisions.

According to neoliberal doctrine, market-based capitalism can only be sustained by having a level playing field where everyone gets a “fair go”. An associated dogma is that disadvantaged groups should get a “a hand up and not a hand out”.

McKenzie inverted these core precepts by redirecting grants disproportionately to clubs that were in “marginal” and “targeted” seats prior to the 2019 election. She rejected over 600 grants SA had approved, including the two highest-scoring applications, and supported over 400 that failed to meet the cut-off point.

Over 40% of the projects McKenzie funded were ineligible under SA’s official criteria, including three applications that SA ranked lowest and were in Coalition-held seats. Several small and wealthy golf and tennis clubs with links to the Liberal Party received grants of up to $500,000, despite having questionable relevance to the objective of increasing community participation.

Another key neoliberal canon is citizens are best served by small and economically efficient governments that intervene minimally in people’s affairs. Yet the government misused a $100 million program that was supposed to support local communities. No one in the offices of McKenzie or Morrison Ministry took responsibility for the scam. Instead, McKenzie and Morrison denied any wrongdoing with the mantra “No rules were broken“.

Some applicants whom SA recommended but McKenzie rejected stayed silent for fear of future financial retribution while others expressed outrage. McKenzie rejected the application by Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, which received a score of 78/100, but its members are challenging the legality of the CSIGP in Federal Court.

Old Collegians rugby club in a Coalition-held marginal seat received $500,000 for a proposal that included new female change rooms. Angry former members contacted the media to explain that the club had not fielded a women’s team since 2018, when they left amid unresolved complaints about sexual harassment and sexist treatment.

McKenzie also deleted a proposal with a high score of 84 to improve sporting facilities by the Woorabinda Aboriginal Shire Council, home of the Wadja Wadja and Yungulu people. The Woorabinda CEO said, “It wasn’t just sport; it was also providing space for women’s events … this would have helped support programs that would engage women, and engaging youth to get physically active and have something to do after school.

In November 2018 McKenzie praised the importance of sport: “Nothing better captures the Australian spirit, our values and pride than sport … For many Australians, it is the ethos of who we are, and helps to shape our identity“.

Afterwards she vetoed a host of applications that SA confirmed would promote these very ideals. She also showed no concern for the effects of her rejections on the mass of volunteers, who spent countless hours on applications, only to learn that even the most outstanding ones never stood a chance of succeeding.

The government refused to release details of its procedures so unsuccessful applicants had no idea of why they had been rejected. It also repeatedly obstructed attempts by Senate inquires to obtain evidence about how grants were processed. SA declined to provide information about where applicants ranked and why 1,300 were unsuccessful, citing privacy and confidentiality reasons.

The deception was so intricate and clandestine that it took a 10-month investigation by the ANAO, and a series of investigations by journalists and the Senate to uncover just part of the boondoggle. Operatives even made last-minute changes to the program on the day Morrison called the election and while the government was in caretaker mode.

This duplicity is a stark contrast to how Morrison has embedded sport in his carefully orchestrated image as someone who represents and understands ordinary people. One of his favourite photo-ops is “having a go” at sport with school children – the cohort that stood to benefit most from the CSIGP.

Though the Coalition narrowly won the election, the enormous time, energy, and money it expended on rorting the program was for nought. A statistical analysis found there was no evidence the electorates that received more funding favoured the government. This hubris was not an aberration but a symptom of the Morrison government’s systemic malfeasance. This, in turn, is a consequence of decades of neoliberal governance with concomitant declining levels of accountability and transparency.

Neoliberal ideologues are hostile to criticism due to their high capacity for cognitive dissonance, strong vested interests and deep sense of entitlement. This is why neoliberals insist that market fundamentalism, the cause of catastrophic failures like the GFC, is also the solution.

This syndrome is particularly apposite to Australia, where Morrison and some of his confidants are strong exponents of the “Prosperity Gospel”.

This context helps to explain why the government was so fixated on retaining power it abandoned several of its fundamental principles, politicised a quintessential community institution, and put mediocrity ahead of evidence-based excellence. In the process it treated thousands of everyday Australians contemptuously.

It also shows that Morrison learned nothing from the scandal. In 2020 he cut $14 million from the ANAO’s annual budget, and then berated calls for a federal integrity agency that were prompted by sports rorts. His recent Trump-like attacks on Labor strongly suggest this year’s election campaign will be even more divisive than the previous one.

Morrison’s authoritarian and punitive tendencies will intensify if his rebadged populist cliches of “can-do capitalism” and “The Australian Way” deliver him a “second coming”.

This article was published by Pearls and Irritations and is reproduced with the author’s permission.