The Australian National Audit Office has revealed that the federal government handed out tens of millions of dollars in community sports infrastructure grants ostensibly for political purposes.
This has outraged many – including some who are, for the very first time, finding a type of government spending to which they are opposed.
This audit was initiated in response to the Liberal candidate for the South Australian seat of Mayo presenting a local bowling club with a six-figure novelty cheque under this scheme early last year.
The ANAO observed that “it is not evident … what the legal authority was” for the way the minister made approvals under this program. It goes on to conclude that “the award of funding … was not consistent with the assessed merit of applications”.
Which seems moderately appalling, but it hardly gets better when you look at the published criteria by Sports Australia.
Under these guidelines, the extent to which a project “leads to an increase in the inclusiveness of new or underrepresented user groups” was worth 10 points, but so was the “proven capacity and capability to complete the project” of the applicant.
Are they really of equal weight when considering financing infrastructure projects?
Whether the project improves the quality or standard of facilities available to the community – seemingly the main point of an infrastructure grant – is worth five points, half as much as the fact that it’s been identified as a priority by local government. And wouldn’t that be a political decision too?
Not to mention how one might begin to objectively measure differences in the “deficiency in the availability and/or accessibility of community sport and physical activity facilities” between two projects. Is there an international standard on the minimum number of cricket grounds per hundred thousand people?
It looks like a functionally discretionary funding stream clothed in the guise of objectivity.
None of which makes the decision by the minister to focus on marginal electorates as the key factor any more justifiable. But let’s at least be mad for the right reason: the nakedness of the politicking here forces us to confront the bigger flaws in our political model.
We need to stop kidding ourselves that government decision-making is somehow objective or impartial. This problem goes far beyond $100 million in small-scale community grants.
For example, similar political considerations are why we are building a dozen bespoke submarines in Adelaide, coincidentally also the subject of a recent ANAO report. Not because they are the best subs available, or because it is the best decision from a defence perspective, but because of the political ramifications of spending $80 billion in South Australia.
Are we surprised this project is in trouble?
Another great example: we spent $30 billion in the 15 years to 2012 propping up Australia’s automotive manufacturing industry so they could make cars that people were increasingly unwilling to buy. Such largesse wasn’t to the benefit of consumers or taxpayers (also known as voters) or in the best interests of the country.
And just in case you think this is something the Coalition does that Labor does not, you might like to consider, for example, why one of the earliest rollout sites for the NBN was in Armidale.
We need to stop kidding ourselves that government decision-making is somehow objective or impartial.
The primary purpose of many government programs, accounting for billions upon billions of dollars, is political. Those programs exist not to satisfy pressing needs (which Sports Australia thinks is only worth 15 points anyway), but to assuage political constituencies that their concerns are being taken seriously.
We have taken Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning against government seeking to bribe people with their own money and turned it into an operating principle.
Nearly $24,000 to the Canberra BMX club, which itself was just 10 per cent of the nearly $240,000 given to the Nhulunbuy BMX Club. $60,000 to the Alexander Park Dressage Club, while the Concise Equestrian Centre got nearly $40,000 and Raise the Roof Benalla got nearly $250,000. Almost $180,000 to the Grafton Sporting Car Club. $154,000 to the Burnside Lacrosse Club.
The point in highlighting these examples is not that these facilities or initiatives are unworthy. Nor is the point that we should apply more stringent criteria to community sports grants.
It’s about asking what on Earth the federal government is doing doling out funding for community sporting infrastructure in the first place?
Section 51 of the constitution, which sets out the powers of the federal government, says nothing about funding equestrian facilities across the country. It does not task the Commonwealth with the grave responsibility of expanding the footprint of lawn bowls. Tennis, soccer, cricket, football – all absent.
Did the framers of the constitution intend for the taxpayers of Sydney to contribute to the Huon Valley Police and Community Youth Club, located in Southern Tasmania? Or indeed contemplate that the good burghers of Huon Valley would themselves be forking out cash to the Maleny Golf Club on the Sunshine Coast?
Why are these initiatives the business of the federal government?
There are no good answers to that question. The federal government is involved because they have most of the money: there is a severe mismatch between the revenue raised by the state government (who, through local government, should be responsible for projects of this kind) and the Commonwealth.
Over time this has led to the Commonwealth government being the first port of call for every community group, sporting club and local council looking to fund community infrastructure.
This transfer of responsibility has been aided and abetted by politicians at both the state and federal level for political reasons.
Federal politicians seeking votes can promise things for their local community. And state governments have someone to blame for their failure to fulfil their constitutional roles.
The better approach is to delegate decision-making and funding powers to as low a level as possible and allow individual communities to start making decisions about what they think spending priorities should be.
An even better approach might be to significantly cut taxes and let individuals spend their own money on the leisure facilities they think are important.
Either way, we need to stop pretending that bureaucratic processes, like the one employed by Sports Australia, are inherently apolitical.
Indeed, singling out these sporting grants is problematic. Not because the minister was right to make funding decisions primarily for political reasons. But because pretty much our whole system of government is set up to do the same thing.
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