By Paul Farrell, 7.30 Report, 26th February 2020.
PAUL FARREL, REPORTER: Beneath the Sydney Harbour bridge, surrounded by world famous landmarks, sits one of the nation’s most picturesque pools.
ZOE BAKER, NORTH SYDNEY COUNCILLOR: North Sydney Olympic Pool is, I’d say, a national icon.
It’s an art deco pool that most of the world records up until the ’80s were set, from Dawn Fraser to Shane Gould.
It’s idyllic but it’s still a local pool. It just happens to have one of the best views and locations arguably in the world.
TRENT ZIMMERMAN, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR NORTH SYDNEY: So I’m down here this afternoon at North Sydney Olympic Pool with the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Mayor Jilly Gibson.
PAUL FARREL: Less than a month out from last year’s federal election, the member for North Sydney and the Treasurer paid a visit to the pool.
TRENT ZIMMERMAN: Making the very exciting announcement that the Federal Government, if re-elected, will chip in $10 million to see the pool re-built.
PAUL FARREL: This $10 million contribution to the $58 million pool project would later appear on a list of 41 grants, funded under a little known program called the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream.
ANTHONY WHEALY QC, CENTRE FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: This 2019 grant was designed to be for the benefit of women particularly in relation to sporting facilities, changerooms, swimming facilities and the like.
PAUL FARREL: Before the election, the Morrison Government released a statement, advising that details of the fund would be forthcoming later in 2019 – but that never happened.
In a briefing paper, the government indicated the funding was targeted at regional cities and remote communities.
ZOE BAKER: I don’t see how we could meet the criteria when one of the first parts of it is that being remote and regional communities. We’re the opposite of that.
PAUL FARREL: Independent north Sydney councillor Zoe Baker was surprised by the source of this grant.
ZOE BAKER: It’s really unusual for the Federal Government to provide that amount of funding. Ten million seemed extraordinary.
PAUL FARREL: She’s not opposed to the pool redevelopment. Back in 2015, she pushed for the council to seek Federal Government support.
ZOE BAKER: All councils welcome federal funding but I think that it ought to be in a very transparent, illuminated way. My real fear here is that we did win a lottery from the Regional Sporting Facilities Fund when we didn’t really buy a ticket.
PAUL FARREL: This wasn’t a grant you could apply for. It was a closed and non-competitive selection process.
Was there an actual application for a Federal Government grant?
JILLY GIBSON, MAYOR, NORTH SYDNEY: No. We just kept writing letters. We had our prospectus and kept lobbying both members and it was then announced that we would receive our funding.
PAUL FARREL: North Sydney mayor JILLY GIBSON insists the pool is more than a local draw card.
JILLY GIBSON: This is not just a suburban swimming pool. This is an iconic Sydney pool. Every day of the week we have local visitors, visitors from interstate and a lot of overseas tourists going through the turnstiles.
PAUL FARREL: She doesn’t see a problem with her council receiving $10 million from a program that was supposed to benefit regional and remote communities.
JILLY GIBSON: It’s definitely a regional facility. We have people from all over the state coming to use our pool. It has a history of being a regional pool. Also it’s a tourist attraction.
ANTHONY WHEALY QC: First of all North Sydney is not in a regional area so you wonder about that. The issue is, why was this electorate chosen? If the answer to that was it was chosen to make sure Mr Zimmerman held a seat, then I think we are now moving into an area where good governance is being abandoned.
PAUL FARREL: North Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman said in a statement he was proud to be able to secure funding for the pool after he received a funding case from the council.
JILLY GIBSON: I haven’t seen any facts to suggest any regional community missed out on funding because of North Sydney. I don’t think there’s any evidence that that happened.
MELISSA HARRINGTON, BENDIGO WOMEN’S FOOTBALL CLUB VICE PRESIDENT: Many players have gone on to play in the VFL and the WAFL.
PAUL FARREL: For almost a decade, members of the Bendigo Women’s Football Club have shared changerooms with several men’s teams.
LUIS ALVAREZ-HARRIS, BENDIGO WOMEN’S FOOTBALL CLUB COACH: We have to be very structured. There’s certain times our girls can use the rooms and we they can’t, which isn’t ideal when we’re trying to play a game of footy.
MELISSA HARRINGTON: Down the hall we have toilets. It’s one large disabled toilet and shower and when you’re looking at a team of 30 ladies, it can become quite a full area.
PAUL FARREL: Vice President Melissa Harrington would have jumped at the chance to apply for a grant from the Female Facilities Fund if only they’d had the opportunity to apply.
MELISSA HARRINGTON: Funding would absolutely change that and it would make a massive difference to our club and our culture and where we go going forward.
LUIS ALVAREZ-HARRIS: To have our home for our girls to play and train and feel comfortable in, it’s not too much to ask and we’d just love that for our girls just to give them a level playing field to try and be the best footballers that they can.
PAUL FARREL: In a statement, the Sports Minister Richard Colbeck told 7.30 the scheme funded projects across Australia and that all approved projects were delivering on election promises.
Back in North Sydney, Anthony Whealy QC is one resident who is pleased the pool is getting a makeover.
ANTHONY WHEALY QC: I live in the area of North Sydney. North Sydney pool is a famous institution. We certain wouldn’t want to see it go to seed.
PAUL FARREL: But he fears this case illustrates how grants can be wielded for political purposes.
ANTHONY WHEALY QC: I think we’ve got to be responsible as citizens to make sure that we hold our government to account so that our government acts honestly.