By Andrew Tillet and Patrick Durkin. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 18th January 2020.
Mosman Rowing Club received $500,000 in taxpayer funding under the Morrison government’s discredited sporting grants program in a last-ditch but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save Tony Abbott’s political career.
Mr Abbott announced that the club had received the grant to build new boat racks and extend a pontoon in the run-up to the May 17 election with the then sports minister Bridget McKenzie, who is defying calls to resign after a scathing auditor-general’s report found she had skewed funding towards marginal seats.
The grant for the rowing club was one of many made in the weeks leading up to the election that the government made to sandbag previously blue-ribbon seats where the Liberals were locked in battle with the independents.
In Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Melbourne seat of Kooyong, the Hawthorn Malvern Hockey Club received $500,000 to upgrade its pavilion, including new change rooms for women and a gymnasium.
In Mayo, which the Liberals’ high-profile candidate Georgina Downer was trying to win back, Adelaide Hills Council got just under $500,000 to upgrade the change rooms at a local Oval. Ms Downer had inadvertently triggered the audit when she presented a bowling club with a novelty-sized cheque from an earlier round of funding.
A non-partisan group of retired judges has seized on the controversy to renew demands for a federal integrity commission with teeth.
“The Audit Office don’t have the coercive powers an anti-corruption agency would have,” former NSW Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy said.
“It would give a lie to this bullshit McKenzie is sprouting that what she did was within the rules.
“The misuse of power and money for political gain is an example of corruption but it wouldn’t fall within the federal government’s definition under the proposed model [for an integrity commission].
“There’s a good reason for that. They don’t want this sort of thing investigated.”
In the case of the Mosman Rowing Club, federal taxpayers’ dollars have covered the lion’s share of the $700,000 project in one of Sydney’s most elite suburbs.
The club had complained in its 2018 annual report that in 12 years it had not been able to secure government funding to renovate its clubhouse.
But with Mr Abbott staring at political mortality, the club ended up successful and received the maximum amount available under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program.
“By investing $500,000 in the Mosman Rowing Club, we’re helping the great sport of rowing across our country,” Mr Abbott posted on Twitter on April 24.
However, the money was to no avail. Less than four weeks later, the voters of Warringah ejected Mr Abbott after 25 years in Parliament and elected independent Zali Steggall after a backlash against his conservative views and his moves to block action on climate change.
Ms Steggall added her voice to calls on Friday morning for Senator McKenzie, who is now Agriculture Minister, to resign, accusing the Nationals deputy leader of lacking a moral compass.
“I just think the whole thing is quite disgusting,” Ms Steggall told ABC Radio.
Senator McKenzie has insisted she did not break any rules and that no ineligible projects received funding.
She said on Thursday she had actually engaged in “reverse porkbarrelling“ and awarded more funding to Labor seats than recommended.
The Australian National Audit Office found that Senator McKenzie’s office had intervened hundreds of times to award funding to projects, with a “distribution bias” in favour of marginal Coalition and targeted seats held by Labor or independents.
They also suggested that Senator McKenzie acted without legal authority in awarding the funding.