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Missing the point in Bridget McKenzie Sports Funding controversy

Bridget McKenzie Sports funding issue

Since his stunning federal election victory towards the end of 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has had a very difficult summer. Well before Bridget McKenzie’s sports funding issue arose, it started with the rather unfortunate coincidence of him taking an overseas family holiday just at the moment that the very difficult fire season began. Indeed, the “bushfire crisis” that occurred in New South Wales in particular kept the pressure on the prime minister following his dash back to Australia in order to be seen to be doing something amidst the destruction in some of the more remote areas of the Australian east coast. Lying in wait for his return was the climate change lobby who couldn’t wait to pin responsibility for the fire season on the government.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, the prime minister was also confronted with a political problem arising from the allocation of federal funds to various sports clubs and associations. These allocations had been made by the minister for sport at the time, Senator Bridget McKenzie. The controversy had arisen as a result of a report from the National Audit Office criticising the rather political nature of her decision-making. Instead of allocating funds as per the advice of Sport Australia, the quasi-autonomous statutory authority that is part of the federal sport policy bureaucracy, the minister had instead sought to channel money in to sensitive electorates.

While mere mortals amongst us might think that the whole point of being a parliamentarian is to try to influence resource allocations in a way that return you maximum political benefits, a long line of commentators, journalists and academics and maybe just a few bureaucrats lined up to attack Senator McKenzie by alleging corruption on her part. The chorus of sanctimonious experts was in concert: Senator McKenzie, having breached the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, either had to resign or be dismissed by the prime minister.

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There is, in fact, quite a bit of humbug coming from this commentary, starting with the idea that Senator McKenzie has acted corruptly or improperly (the question of the wisdom of her approach is another matter). Both the Office of National Audit and Sports Australia are statutory bodies made up of bureaucrats none of whom are directly answerable to the community. Senator McKenzie is a parliamentarian who is directly answerable to the community via the electoral process. The role of statutory authorities is to provide advice to the parliament, and/or to perform certain functions required of them under their operational charter as defined by parliamentarians. In the case of Sport Australia, its input on how grant money might be allocated is simply advice that a minister is free to ignore. On the matter of allocating tax payer money, the buck literally stops with the parliamentarian, not the bureaucrat.

Of course, the challenge for Senator McKenzie, and the prime minister, is that the political realm presents its own set of potential pitfalls. McKenzie is a senator, of course, and the government does not have a majority in the upper house. The Senate can’t force McKenzie’s removal, but it can make life for the government difficult especially were it of a mind to conduct an inquiry. The prime minister, meanwhile, will have to judge what course of action best serves the government’s interest – in this case, assessing what the public will or won’t accept. Dismissing McKenzie poses some political difficulties, however. Ms McKenzie is not from the Liberal party, and the prime minister will know that, were he to remove her from the ministry, the next avalanche of ideological criticism will be from feminist commentators bemoaning the gender imbalance in the coalition government.

If the Senate does go down the path of forming a committee and conducting an inquiry, it is to be hoped that the terms of reference might include the basic question as to why it is that the Commonwealth sees the need to be dealing in sport policy anyway. Rather like dealing with bush fires, sport policy really ought to be the concern not of Canberra, but of state governments. The real controversy in the McKenzie sports grants affair is not whether the minister ignored advice from Sport Australia, not whether she made an allocation to a club she was a member of, but rather why the Commonwealth is making these grants in the first place.

Indeed, this begs the broader question as to why there is such an extensive federal sport bureaucracy at all. The tendency for duplication and inefficiency is one of the consequences of the Australian approach to government where Canberra uses its power over public finances to seek to influence policy areas it has no real constitutional authority to pursue. Sport is a case in point, and it would be interesting to see how a parliamentary inquiry would end up assessing the contribution Sport Australia makes to an aspect of Australian life that really involves localism.

In the interest of less duplication, a better use of taxpayer resources and constraining the incursion of Canberra-based politicians in to local affairs, the best outcome in the McKenzie affair would be the cessation of a federal sports policy, the closure of the ministry and the abolition of Sport Australia and the rest of the Canberra-based sports bureaucracy. The money saved from this should then be given to the state and territory governments, and they should decide on how grants will be allocated. That way state and territory voters will be the final arbiters over how sport is run in their communities.

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