Sport grants always political

Simon Cowan

24 January 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) 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 “it is not evident … what the legal authority was” for the way the Minister made approvals under this program. It goes on to conclude “the award of funding … was not consistent with the assessed merit of applications.”

Which seems moderately appalling, but like so many government spending programs, the whole scheme reeks of politics clothed in the guise of supposed bureaucratic objectivity.

What is the federal government 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.

Why are these initiatives the business of the federal government?

The better approach is to delegate decision-making and funding powers to as low a level as possible and allowing 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 are inherently apolitical. That the only assurance of ‘independence’ is government money handled by public servants.

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.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times as Is anyone really shocked by Sports Rorts 2.0?

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