By Greg Blood. Originally published in The Footy Almanac, 12 February 2020.
I have observed closely the last two Federal elections from a sporting perspective and found that both the Coalition and Labor have used ‘sport’ to promote their case for election to particularly marginal or contestable electorates. From the data I collected from the last election, the Coalition was more effective in utilising sport particularly with Prime Minister Morrison appearing at many sport facility election announcements.
“Sports Rorts II” has created enormous media coverage over recent weeks and to date the resignation of former Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie. A Senate Inquiry in the next few months will most likely highlight many more issues. For me this is a failure of Australian Government sport policy.
The observations I make below are formed by someone who worked in Australian Government sport agencies for nearly 30 years and has researched the development of sport policies in Australia since the 1970s.
My starting point is that community sport is acknowledged to be very important in Australian society, particularly for physical activity and community cohesion. It involves three important components: participants, officials and facilities. Community sport is heavily reliant on participants and volunteers and to a lesser extent government funding to prosper.
Currently all levels of government – Australian, state and local – assist community sport primarily through the provision of sport facilities. Schools and commercial businesses are also involved to a lesser extent.
One of the reasons the scandal has occurred is that there has been no national coordinated policy for the provision of sports facilities across Australia. Each level of government seems to take turns in funding, often around elections.
It is useful to have a brief history lesson on Australian Government involvement in community sports facilities funding.
The Hawke Labor Government became involved in this space in 1988 with its Community Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities Program. This program came into operation at a time when the Australian Government was dramatically increasing its investment in sport. The mismanagement of this program, now known as ‘Sports Rorts I’, led to the resignation of Minister for Sport Ros Kelly in early 1994 after the Auditor-General found limited documentation on why Kelly had decided on funding some facilities over others. Kelly in fact had used a ‘whiteboard’ and no there was no record for reasons behind her funding decisions. It was argued that Kelly had directed funding to marginal Labor-held electorates before the 1993 Federal election.
1994 House of Representatives Report (PDF) on the program provided five recommendations around determining the need for funding, selection criteria with weighting and if a Minister amends the ratings provided by Department that reasons are noted. If these recommendations, particularly around rationale for Ministerial decisions had been followed, maybe ‘Sports Rorts II’ would not have occurred. It irks me that Australian Governments and their advisors did not learn from lessons from the first iteration or at least some of its recommendations.
The 2009 Crawford Inquiry into Sport (PDF) to me summarises the state of play in this area after 1994 ‘Sports Rorts I’. It stated:
“In order to meet the needs of the community, it is critical to know what they really are. Funding facilities without an assessment of need is unlikely to provide optimal outcomes. Reports from two Australian Government inquiries have highlighted the need for systematic and strategic approaches to the provision of sport and recreation facilities across the country. The House of Representatives report Rethinking the Funding of Community Sporting and Recreational Facilities: A Sporting Chance (PDF) and the Sport 2000 Taskforce report Shaping Up: A Review of Commonwealth Involvement in Sport and Recreation in Australia (PDF) both highlighted the need for systematic and strategic approaches to the provision of sport and recreation facilities across the country.”
The Crawford Report recommended that “the Australian Government should establish a national sport facilities fund with an initial allocation of $250 million each year for four years, to begin the implementation of the strategic national facilities initiative in partnership with state, territory and local governments and the private sector, where appropriate.” This was rejected by Labor Government as it appeared to prefer to fund community sport facilities through a range of Australian Government grants schemes.
This brings me to the Australian Government 2018-19 budget announcement that resulted in Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program (CSIGP) which initially provided 29.7 million and ultimately three rounds totalling $102.4 million for community sport facilities.
While I acknowledged at the time that this was an important funding announcement, my concerns were:
- There was no evidence base (i.e. national database of sports facilities linked to participation needs) for making decisions on an expected high volume of applications (2800 applications were received in 1992/92 funding scheme)
- The likely short time period for assessing thousands of applications
- To what level of consultation would be with state/ territory and local governments in funding decisions.
After all, these concerns had been highlighted in many previous major Government sport reports.
Evidence from the Australian National Audit Office report into CSIGP has indicated to me that Sport Australia largely followed the recommendations from 1994 House of Representatives Inquiry particularly in relation to criteria and ranking. However, the ANAO report highlights that the recommendation from 1994 was not adhered to ‘where additional information is obtained and the ratings are amended by the Minister, or if for any other reasons the ratings are amended, the schedules should be annotated and additional information added to the file”.
To date, we do not know why Minister McKenzie did not adhere to Sport Australia rankings as there is no published evidence of Ministerial reasons as recommended in the 1994 report. Many mainstream political journalists have provided numerous cases where Ministerial approved grants under CSIGP were based on pork barrelling – directed at marginal or contestable electorates. Interestingly ‘the coloured spreadsheet’ has replaced the ‘whiteboard’ as a decision-making tool.
I think many sport and council organisations that prepared detailed applications are deeply upset because they do now know why Sport Australia’s ratings were rejected by the Minister. I go back to an earlier point; community sport is largely volunteer based with limited resources. Time poor volunteers deserve feedback on why their application that many have taken many hours to prepare was unsuccessful.
To add to the outrage over CSIGP, reporting by the ABC and the Guardian found that the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) announced in 2019-20 budget ($150m over four years) would not have an application round and guidelines as funds were already allocated due to Coalition election announcements. These announcements were found primarily directed at community swimming pools in marginal electorates. Where were all the swimming pool funding announcements in safe Coalition or Labor electorates? They obviously do not need them.
It appears there is now limited funding available for female change rooms which to me appeared to be the mantra behind the government in setting up these grants programs.
To me the outrage to decisions made under both Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program (CSIGP) ($100m) and Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream ($150m) has been justified as Australian Governments over the last few decade have not followed the considered recommendations from several major sport inquiries and as a result funding decisions have been observed to be highly political not equitable and evidence-based.
Labor is not innocent as I found many of its 2019 election commitments for community sport facilities were directed at marginal electorates.
For community sport to develop across Australia in the long term, it needs funding decisions to be based on evidence and equity. Community sport facility funding will be always limited so it is important these principles are adhered to.
My reflections on the scandal are: Is the Australian Government best placed to make major community sport funding decisions? Are state and local governments better placed – after all they often have to manage these facilities when completed. In addition, they likely to be more aware of the sporting needs of their communities.
I believe the following foundations should be in place if the Australian Government continues to fund community sport facilities:
- Develop a sustainable national sport and recreation facilities database linked to sport and physical activity participation data. Several attempts have been made in this area but have failed.
- Only have one major funding program for community sport and recreation facilities. Currently there are myriad Australian Government grants schemes that community sports organisations and councils can utilise. This can make it difficult for them to determine where to apply but also can lead to duplication or inequity.
- Australian Government agency or department responsible for funding community sport facilities develop long term expertise. Sport Australia previously had limited expertise in this area but was given the responsible to quickly determining a preferred grants list.
- Australian Government to liaise with relevant organisations (i.e. councils, schools etc) before funding is announced as these organisations may be responsible for provision of land or ongoing maintenance. Several grants awarded have fallen over due to this lack of consultation.
- Australian Government and the Minister provide published reasons for funding application decisions. This is important for community confidence in these programs.
- Major parties cannot make election announcements for community sport facilities as this can severely distort the equity of the provision of community sport facilities across Australia.
It has been frustrating to read and watch the commentary around “Sports Rorts II” as it was preventable. After “Sports Rorts I”, Australian Governments stayed away from community sports facility schemes until 2018. I hope that this does not happen again as community sport needs constant investment for the upgrade and development of facilities.
I look forward to both Coalition and Labor committing to further funding of community sport facilities but future funding programs should be more tightly managed, coordinated and decisions based on strong evidence not political objectives.