In the Battle of Bridget, the unelected bureaucrats have triumphed over the will of the Victorian people with the effect of diminishing the value of our democracy.
Senator Bridget McKenzie has paid a steep price for the sports rorts scandal, being forced to resign as Minister for Agriculture and leave Cabinet.
The usual narrative around McKenzie’s dismissal was that it was inevitable; that she had abused her position when she was Minister for Sport by handing out grants to clubs in marginal Liberal and National seats.
But there is another way of looking at this, one where three groups of unelected bureaucrats, under the direction of the shadow attorney-general, used their positions to unfairly target a high performing and popular conservative female senator for Victoria.
Group of unelected bureaucrats #1, the Australian National Audit Office, undertook an audit of the Community Sport Infrastructure Program. As Minister for Sport, McKenzie had responsibility for allocating funds to sports clubs around Australia. This audit was undertaken at the request of the shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus.
Dreyfus specifically asked the ANAO to investigate the circumstances surrounding the $127,000 check that went to the Yankalilla bowls club in the lead up to the 2018 by-election in the of Adelaide electorate of Mayo.
But the ANAO, of its own volition, went beyond that remit of investigating the $127,000 cheque to looking into the entire $100 million multi-year grants program.
The finding by the ANAO was apparently that some successful grant applications were “not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious in terms of the published program guidelines”. But assessed as meritorious by who?
That would be group of unelected bureaucrats #2, Sports Australia, which is the government agency responsible for advising on and administering the sports grants program.
Sport Australia invented a rating system out of 100 to assess grant applications, with the expectation that those with a higher score would receive the funding. McKenzie’s office developed its own methodology which, naturally, led to do different assessments.
There is the broader public policy question of why the Commonwealth government even has the authority to hand over significant taxpayer dollars to local sporting clubs. Surely that would be better managed at the state, local, and community levels.
But given the Commonwealth does have that power, someone must decide where the grants are allocated. And in a parliamentary democracy like Australia, it is the bureaucrats who advise and ministers who decide.
Even the ANAO report concluded that “program guidelines identified that the Minister for Sport would approve Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program funding”.
Certainly, some of McKenzie’s grant allocations were questionable. Her $36,000 grant to a shooting club in Wangaratta that she was a member of was a clear conflict of interest. McKenzie should have declared the conflict and recused herself from providing grants to firearms clubs.
Ultimately, it was an investigation carried out by group of unelected bureaucrats #3 at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that uncovered that and a second conflict of interest that led to McKenzie’s resignation.
But, even there, it is worth remembering that shooting is an Olympic sport that Australia has won five gold medals in. And some of the other grants which have been questioned in the media don’t seem so dodgy on reflection. Sport Australia advised the minister that the Gippsland Lakes Roller Derby would be a worthy recipient of a $500,000, grant having received a rating of 98 out of 100.
McKenzie formed a different view and decided to allocate $500,000 to the Pakenham footy club to build changing rooms for female footy and netball players. The Sport Australia bureaucrats rated the footy club as only 50 out of 100.
That tells you everything you need to know about this issue. Unelected bureaucrats wanted grants to go to roller derby. But an elected member of parliament thought the footy club was more deserving. Which is more consistent with community expectations?
The sports grants program was far from a pure and clean process. But there is a much bigger principle at stake, which is that ministers must hold the ultimate responsibility for how taxpayer dollars are allocated. They — and not the unelected Canberra-based bureaucrats — are the ones who face voters every three or six years.
Like it or not, that is how democracy works.