SUBJECTS: Sports rorts; Bridget McKenzie; climate change; bushfire crisis recovery; coronavirus and airport screening.
PATRICK GORMAN, MEMBER FOR PERTH: It is great to have Anthony Albanese here at the Mount Lawley Bowling Club. This is one of the oldest bowling clubs in Perth. It is a club that welcomes the entire community and is loved by my electorate. And unfortunately, the reason we are here today is because this club, like so many across Australia, has been treated incredibly poorly by the Coalition Government. They, in good faith, put together their application for a community sporting grant. They did the work. They told us it took about 200 hours of their time. They got small businesses to give them quotes. And then they waited. And waited. And then they were told they were unsuccessful. I wrote to the minister and said, ‘Can you give us any feedback? This is a club that clearly needs money to fix their synthetic greens and to help manage the costs and water over time to turn some of their grasses into synthetic greens.’ The minister wrote back and said to me, ‘Oh, there were just too many high-quality applicants’. We now know that was actually not the truth. This, like so many clubs, has been let down by the Coalition Government. To talk more about how Scott Morrison can clean up the mess that his own ministers created, I will hand over to Labor’s Leader, Anthony Albanese.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, thanks very much Patrick. And it is great to be back in Perth for my first visit this year of 2020. I, of course, made a commitment to visit WA ten times a year. I made that commitment last year. And this is my first visit for 2020. This club put in an application for $423,000. They had $40,000 of their own money that they were prepared to put in to contribute to the upgrade of this facility for, like many clubs of this size, a sporting organisation that is at the centre of local community activity. One that relies upon volunteers. One that contributes to the wellbeing of the local community here. And yet, they were not successful for the grant. What we know is that these grants, $100 million, was established under the Australian Sports Commission Act for funding to be allocated by Sports Australia, an independent body of experts set up to examine the applications and the merits of these applications. They examined the merits of all the applications and they had a ranking based upon objective criteria. What we know is that in round one, 41 per cent of the grants fell outside of that ranking. In round two, it rose as the election got closer, to 70 per cent. In round three, it hit 73 per cent. Three quarters of the grants weren’t on the list of clubs that should have received the support from the Government, according to the objective criteria, according to the act. And what that is about is, we are not saying that any of those clubs, Mosman Rowing Club got $500,000 in the electorate of Warringah, where, of course, Tony Abbott was under siege from Zali Steggall. Scott Morrison, a football club in his electorate announced that they had money, months before the department actually made the formal announcement. And there are questions to be asked about how that could possibly have occurred. But what we know from the Audit Office report is that the whole system here has now been brought into question. Because what the Auditor-General’s report says, and I quote him, ‘There was no legal authority evident to the ANAO under which the minister was able to be the approver of the Commonwealth Sporting Infrastructure Grants Program’. Very clear. There is no legal basis upon which this minister was intervening to make these decisions to essentially take money off some clubs and give it to others. And the Audit Office found very clearly that was based upon the marginality of the electorates. Whether they were marginal Coalition-held seats, or whether they were seats that the Coalition was hoping to win at the 2019 election.
So, we have a circumstance whereby the Government must release the details of all of the applicants and where they ranked, and why they were successful or not successful. Because at the moment there’s no transparency at all. But what is very clear is that this minister’s position is completely untenable. Because this minister intervened with what would appear to be no legal basis whatsoever. But it’s okay there, because the Prime Minister’s given Christian Porter, whose electorate also benefited here in Perth from the distortion that occurred, there’s no basis for it. And so, what we have here is that a club, local club, this one and many others right around the country, have missed out. And when it comes to sport, people expect a level playing field. When I met with the executive at this bowling club, they said, ‘Every week we put up the scores of how the competitions are going. We don’t get to the end of the year and there’s something behind a curtain that just says, oh, you’ve made the finals, or you’ve missed out.’ That’s basically what’s happened here. There’s no basis upon which success or no success has been determined other than politics. It’s a rort. The minister has to go.
JOURNALIST: Considering those questions over whether Bridget McKenzie had the authority to allocate those grants, would you advise unsuccessful clubs like this one to challenge the decision?
ALBANESE: Well, my understanding is that some clubs are going to do that. That’s a decision for them. And I’m not surprised that that’s occurring. If people have put in hundreds of hours of work from volunteers, and they’ve missed out, there’s no transparency there, there’s no legal basis for the decision, if that’s what they end up concluding, that’s what the Audit Office has concluded already. And if the Government thought there was a legal basis, guess what? They would have said it by now.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of the chances of Christian Porter coming to some sort of adverse finding against Bridget?
ALBANESE: I think it’s farcical. Completely farcical that Christian Porter has been asked to come up with a determination against someone, when his electorate benefited from this process. And when it’s pretty clear from the report that was on one of the networks last night that Scott Morrison’s office were involved in this completely. And the fact that Scott Morrison was personally making announcements, and that contrasts with people like Graham Perrett in Moreton, where he put in a supporting letter for a grant. It was granted, but the Liberal candidate got to make the announcement. And, of course, Labor’s complaint about this goes back to Georgina Downer, with a big, oversized cheque with Georgina Downer’s name written on it. Anyone looking at that would think this is Georgina Downer’s money. It wasn’t. It was taxpayers’ money. And there the local Independent Member of Parliament was excluded from that announcement. This is an extraordinary circumstance that the Government has put itself in. What is characterising this Government is that every decision it makes is all about politics. It’s never about the substance. It’s never about the national interest. Whether it’s the economy, whether it’s wages, whether it be the need to respond to the bushfire crisis as it was approaching. They’re complacent. They’re just concerned about themselves. And they’re just concerned about politics.
JOURNALIST: Should the Government axe the Commonwealth sports grants program?
ALBANESE: Well, look, all the money has gone out the door. It’s all done. So, my understanding is that it effectively has been concluded. It was a $100 million program, of which all of the expenditure has occurred.
JOURNALIST: Does the support for the senator from the Prime Minister and others, is that possible, or explained by the possibility that there are more than just her involved in this, there are a lot of fingerprints all over this and they can’t afford to put the skids under her?
ALBANESE: Well, it’s very clear the Prime Minister is very involved in this. He was making announcements. One of the clubs in his electorate was pre-empting an announcement by a couple of months. There’s talk of his office being directly involved in this process. And he won’t say what his involvement was. It’s very clear that you had this body, Sports Australia, no wonder people like Phil Kearns and other fine Australians, eminent Australians, who gave up their time to participate in Sports Australia, it’s not some little committee at the back of Parliament House, this is a statutory body that’s been appointed by the Government to give advice. And then it’s been completely overruled. And there’s a legal question over the basis of that.
JOURNALIST: Back in 1993/1994, Ros Kelly fell on her sword. These are identical circumstances, aren’t they? Is it so far back that this Government can afford to just ignore it?
ALBANESE: Well, this Government ignores its abuse of power continually. Angus Taylor, today we have reports about 18 FOI requests regarding the fake letter about dodgy-ing up the figures of City of Sydney travel. Eighteen requests, only four granted. Fourteen kept from the public. And the minister is still sitting there. The minister who’s been misleading Parliament since his first speech. He continues to do so on a regular basis. We have here a minister, who I’m surprised actually that the Government put out there in its spin about what occurred with Ros Kelly. Ros Kelly resigned. It was appropriate that happened. It’s appropriate that this minister resigns. Minister McKenzie’s position is simply untenable. And the Westminster system requires her to go.
JOURNALIST: You spoke to the executive of this club here who are reluctant to speak publicly. Is there a fear of retribution? When we cannot speak out because we may not get a grant next time?
ALBANESE: Well, this is a Government that isn’t transparent about its processes. They won’t say what the list was, who missed out, who was successful, and why. They need to do so.
JOURNALIST: You agree that there is this climate of fear? That people are afraid to go up against this Government?
ALBANESE: Well, look, this is a Government that is prepared to engage in political activity to drive everything that it does. Nothing that it does, it would seem, is on the merits of the case. And we see that in a range of grant programs. We see that in the way that it has funded various organisations, not just through sports grants. We see it in the way that they deal with any criticism. I mean, Scott Morrison yesterday, smacked down the New South Wales Environment Minister of his own Party, for daring to say that climate change is real.
JOURNALIST: You said the money has been spent, so the program is more or less done. If you believe there are deserving clubs that missed out, would you like to see the program to continue so that they have a chance to get funding?
ALBANESE: We don’t even know what the facts are. I want the Government to put out, transparently, who all the applicants were and what their ranking was. That’s not asking for much. That’s not a state secret. It’s not something that’s a threat from some foreign power, if they know where Mount Lawley Bowling Club was between 1 and 100 in terms of its ranking, and it is just common decency that they should be prepared to do that, so that the clubs might know as well if they got something wrong, if there’s some way that could improve their application for a future grant program. Then they could examine that.
JOURNALIST: The Fremantle Tennis Clubs missed out on a grant as well. And the claim was because it was a Labor electorate. Is that the view that it is possible that’s why the club missed out?
ALBANESE: It’s very possible. What we know is that these decisions were partisan. These decisions were based upon a political process that ran parallel to the real process. So, the Audit Office have found that at the same time as Sports Australia we’re conducting an appropriate process in accordance with the law, somewhere in Parliament House, probably a bunch of staffers were sitting around making decisions, looking at the electoral pendulum, not looking at the applications. And that’s the problem here. This stinks. Everyone who has a look at it knows that’s the case. And Scott Morrison needs to sack this minister. And if he doesn’t, questions will be asked about why that is the case. Is it because his office was directly involved in this as well?
JOURNALIST: Are you worried at all that because of this, because the Government is putting funding to marginal seats, people may not vote Labor in the next Federal Election?
ALBANESE: I think people will have a look at this. And they want Government to actually make decisions in the national interests, in the public interest, not in partisan interests. I believe they will be marking down this Government. The more you see of Scott Morrison and this third-term Government, that has been in office for seven years, that doesn’t actually have a plan to address the big challenges facing this nation, the more that people realise that the Scott Morrison they voted for isn’t the one that they’ve actually got. He’s a very different person. And I think we’re seeing, across a range of issues, that being evident more and more to the community.
JOURNALIST: On the other hand, you may become the beneficiary of reverse pork-barrelling? The suggestion was from the senator that she was reverse pork-barrelling Labor electorates which for some reason would favour Labor. I would just like a comment on that?
ALBANESE: Well, it’s just embarrassing that this minister is in so much trouble that she’s really clutching at straws. And the truth is that everyone who has a look at the program and has a look, the National Audit Office isn’t a Labor Party body. The Auditor-General was appointed by the Coalition Government on one of its seven long years that it’s been in office. It’s an independent body. This is a scathing report. This is the most scathing report from the National Audit Office that I’ve seen in my time in Parliament, and I used to sit on the Public Accounts Committee.
JOURNALIST: Should the Opposition have been aware of this sooner?
ALBANESE: Well, there’s no transparency here. The local Member here, Patrick Gorman, wrote to the minister saying, ‘What occurred? Why was Mount Lawley Bowling Club not successful?’ And he was told that there were lots of really good applications and that some were better. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, well, we had a political process’. He didn’t come clean about what the process was. We wrote when, we saw, we were aware of it when you had Georgina Downer, who’s never been elected to anything, there with a massive cheque with her name on it as if it was her money. I saw that during the campaign. And was quite frankly shocked at that sort of behaviour. Someone who’s not a Member of Parliament, handing at taxpayers’ funds to a local organisation, as if it was their money. The same thing happened in Moreton. And the same thing, of course, happened to a range of their candidates around the country.
JOURNALIST: Mr Gorman, do you believe that this club has suffered because they are in your electorate?
GORMAN: I think this club has suffered because the rules of the grant process were not followed by the Government who set those rules. That’s not about me. And that shouldn’t be about politics. That’s because this club in good faith and Terry and the committee do a great job for this community. They just went and said, ‘Oh, there’s a grant program, it’s an open system. It’s going to be assessed by Sports Australia’. And then they put the submission in and then the political interference started. That’s why this club has been let down.
JOURNALIST: Well, let me take you out of it then. Is it because it is a Labor electorate? Is that why they missed out? Because if the rules were manipulated in the way that you say, wouldn’t it follow that because this club is in a Labor electorate, therefore they haven’t gotten any funding?
GORMAN: The simple way to answer that is if the Government releases the rankings, as I wrote to the minister last year and said, ‘Tell us why this club was not successful’. Then we’ll know. What we know from the Australian National Audit Office report is that clubs were preferentially treated based on which electorate that they were in. Therefore, you reduce the pool of funds available for clubs through the normal process. However you choose to frame it, it was wrong. It was unfair on clubs, like Mount Lawley Bowling Club. And if the Government had any decency, they would start by removing the minister who made this terrible mistake. And they would release the rankings so that these clubs can then, when they apply for the next set of grants, go through the process, knowing whether there was a problem with their application like, ‘you should have got a lower cost quote’, or if there were actual issues with the application. Or, ‘No, we just chose someone because they happen to be in a marginal Coalition seat or a seat that happens to be targeted by the Liberal or National Party.
JOURNALIST: Because the executive of the club won’t speak to us, can you just outline what that funding would have been used for at this club?
GORMAN: So, if you look behind me, you’ll see a 10-year-old synthetic turf. It has done a great job. It’s had thousands and thousands of bowls games played on it. But it’s getting to the end of its life. It would have replaced the synthetic turf. It would have allowed the Mount Lawley Bowls Club to turn some of the natural grass turfs into synthetics. That would have cost about $423,000. That was the application for their grant. And it would have given the club a long-term sustainable footing for the future. These clubs don’t run at a huge profit. They don’t make lots of money. They’re pretty much entirely volunteer led. They might have one person to maintain the grounds. But there’s not a lot of payroll. And they are run very lean. And one of the great things about this club is that if you want to hire it for a community function, great bar prices, so if anyone’s looking for a good value beer here in Perth when you visit, come on down to the Mount Lawley Bowling Club. But also, their rooms are very reasonably priced for community functions.
JOURNALIST: Is there a benefit to turning the grass into synthetic grass?
GORMAN: You use a lot less water. That’s obviously great for the environment. And in terms of the upkeep, it requires less attention. You don’t have some, we were talking about, I can’t remember the name but there are turf mites that can interrupt with particular bowls competitions. And that was a challenge that this club had about a year or so ago. So, it gives you a lot more reliability. And you don’t have to take the turfs out of action to keep them pristine. So, it means you get more bowls, more often, more fun, everyone has a better time. And I hope that they find out what Sports Australia did say about their grant application.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, just a question on climate change. We are hearing from banks around the world that countries need to put a price on carbon to effectively address climate change. Is that something that Australia should consider?
ALBANESE: Well, climate change is a real issue. And climate change needs addressing. It’s an issue for our economy as well as for our natural environment. And businesses are taking into account carbon risk and have been doing so for some period of time. It’s only the Government that’s been complacent about climate change. We still do not have a climate policy. We don’t have an energy policy from this Government. and it’s in its seventh year. And of course, we could have had the NEG, the National Energy Guarantee, was supported by the Liberal Cabinet, was supported by their Party room, but then withdrawn. And they chose instead of going down that road, they chose instead to knock off another elected Prime Minister in Malcolm Turnbull and put Scott Morrison in as Prime Minister. We need to take climate change seriously. It is an economic threat, as well as a social and environmental issue.
JOURNALIST: So, should putting a price on carbon be on the table?
ALBANESE: Well, the Government had a plan, such as the NEG. And the NEG was a mechanism that would have driven some changes through the economy. I think there are a range of issues that could be looked at. The NEG was one that was there that would have made a difference.
JOURNALIST: Are you still inclined to support a bushfire Royal Commission?
ALBANESE: Look, we’ll wait and see what the terms of reference are. And we expect to be consulted on it. We haven’t been, to this point. My concern with a Royal Commission is that this Prime Minister uses anything to avoid answering questions. And I don’t want a circumstance whereby he is able to say, ‘Well, that’ll be looked at by the Royal Commission’. What we need to do, in many measures, is do things that we’ve known about for some time. And it seems to me to be a big pre-emption to have a Royal Commission called before COAG has met. COAG has not met for six months. I wrote to the Prime Minister in November, saying there should have been in November COAG, which discussed the need for a national strategy to deal with this bushfire crisis. The Prime Minister dismissed that, as he dismissed the other constructive suggestions that we made. Economic compensation for volunteer firefighters, increased use of the Australian Defence Force, increasing our aerial firefighting capacity. All of these measures we put forward. And many of the things you don’t need a Royal Commission to know about. And you don’t need a Royal Commission either to know that our bushfires seasons are longer and more intense as the scientists told us they would be because of climate change. Thanks very much.
JOURNALIST: Given the bushfires, if the Government cannot deliver a surplus this year, will you be more understanding or lenient on this?
ALBANESE: Well, the first priority has to be dealing with the impact of the bushfires. This will require a significant infrastructure investment. But will also require an investment in people. And my first priority is the people who’ve been impacted as well as our native animals that have been devastated by this as well, as well as our infrastructure. I think it is outrageous that there are people who are affected by the bushfires three months ago, who are still living in tents as a result of the Government not being able to deliver the support when it is needed. It is needed right now. That must be the Government’s priority.
JOURNALIST: Just on the Coronavirus, there’s reports of a man in Brisbane that has returned from China who may have that virus. Is there a need for increased screening in Australian airports?
ALBANESE: Well, look, the Government does need to have increased health screening from any of the destinations that are impacted by this virus. Common sense tells you that is the case. The Australian authorities, in general, do a very good job of making sure that we’re kept safe. And they need to bear that in mind and take whatever action is necessary to ensure community safety. Thanks very much.
JOURNALIST: Should they start screening at Brisbane airport?
ALBANESE: Well, if there are flights coming in from destinations that have been impacted by this virus, then there should be an increase in screening at those airports. Otherwise they should be taking every advice from the health experts and making sure that they’re as stringent as possible. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.