Sarah Henderson’s ultra-marginal seat of Corangamite received $30m under the scheme. (Supplied: Twitter)
It was the multi-million-dollar sports program without any rules — except to win with a cash splash.
- The PM announced a $150m fund for female change rooms and swimming pools on the eve of the election
- Guidelines were promised but never published and the scheme was never open for applications
- Two Liberal-held seats received 40 per cent of the funding
No guidelines. No tender process. No application form. Some recipients didn’t know they’d even been given money until they read about it in the local paper.
And at $150 million, it’s worth more than the scandal-plagued community sports grants program that cost the ministerial career of former Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie.
Projects funded under the so-called Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) were even more heavily skewed towards Coalition-held marginal seats than the controversial sports grants program it was meant to complement.
And rather being a nationwide program aimed at encouraging women in sport — as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then-sports minister Senator McKenzie claimed — the great majority of funding has been pledged towards swimming pools in just 11 Coalition-held seats.
In fact, $60 million, or 40 per cent of the program’s funding, went to just two Liberal-held seats — the ultra-marginal Corangamite, which the Liberal Party ultimately lost to Labor in last year’s federal election, and the marginal WA seat of Pearce, which Attorney-General Christian Porter retained.
The Government argues the fund simply delivers on its election commitments.
But it was originally pitched as a merit-based sports grant scheme for local clubs in need of upgrading facilities to make them female-friendly.
The Prime Minister’s press release released on the launch of the scheme in March 2019 promised more information after the May 18 election.
And a document prepared by the Infrastructure Department shows guidelines for the program were meant to be delivered by June last year.
Guidelines have never been released and funding for the four-year program has already been nearly exhausted.
And while the Prime Minister and Senator McKenzie sold the scheme as a boost for women’s sport, pools in marginal seats — not female change rooms — were allocated most of the money.
Scott Morrison made multiple trips to campaign with Sarah Henderson in Corangamite during the election. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)
Councils learns of funding in the paper
The Victorian Surf Coast Shire Council only discovered it would receive $20 million to build an Olympic-sized pool at Torquay when it was published in the Geelong Advertiser four weeks before Australians voted in May.
Another $10 million was committed to the Bellarine Aquatic Centre Pool, also in Corangamite.
Feasibility studies for both projects have only just begun, with no promise they will be built.
“If it was not for the Prime Minister including this money in the Budget — it would not have happened,” then-Liberal MP for Corangamite Sarah Henderson said at the time.
Pearce, the WA marginal seat the Liberals feared losing to Labor, had $30 million pledged under the scheme, including $25 million for the Ellenbrook Pools and Recreation Centre.
WA marginal Liberal seats Canning and Swan, both target seats for the ALP, shared $27 million for two projects.
Sydney’s Georges River Council found out it had received $5 million to upgrade the Kogarah War Memorial Park Pool on May 14, just four days before the election, through the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader.
The council had not applied for funding.
The cash splash didn’t prevent the pool closing two months later due to leaks.
The Kogarah pool is in the northern part of the PM’s safe Liberal electorate of Cook, close to the southern border of the Liberal-held marginal of Banks, which Labor believed it could win in the 2019 election.
Two pools in the Nationals seat of Cowper, in NSW, shared more than $10 million for two pools projects under the fund. The Coalition feared independent candidate and former MP Rob Oakeshott might steal the seat.
Mr Morrison announced the FFWSS scheme with great fanfare alongside Senator McKenzie, in western Sydney in March 2019.
“The principal objective of that is to ensure that there are changing facilities and other facilities to support more girls and women’s participation in sport all around the country,” he said.
Later in the campaign, Senator McKenzie spoke of the need for women’s sport facilities and said the Government found “an additional $150 million specifically for female change rooms in response to this need”.
However, $120 million of the FFWSS program has been allocated to 14 pools, all in seats held by the Coalition at the time of the election.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said the scheme “delivered on commitments outlined during the 2019 federal election” and said the Labor Party announced “at least $250 million” in community and sport projects during the campaign.
“The Government has provided details of the program to its participants,” they said.
“The Department is finalising funding and contractual arrangements with the program’s participants.”
The Health Department confirmed just $21 million of the $150 million allocated under the scheme is for female change rooms.
At a press conference in March, when the scheme was launched, Mr Morrison declared: “This is how you bring Australians together.”
Cash splash revealed
The ABC has identified 41 projects funded under the scheme, 27 of which are for female changerooms or female-friendly upgrades to sporting clubs, worth a combined $132 million.
|$25m||Ellenbrook||Pearce||3.6%||Attorney-General Christian Porter|
|$20m||South Perth||Swan||3.6%||Liberal Steve Irons|
|$20m||Torquay||Corangamite||0.03%||Liberal Sarah Henderson|
|$10m||North Bellarine||Corangamite||0.03%||Liberal Sarah Henderson|
|$5m||Kogarah upgrade||Banks||1.4%||Immigration Minister David Coleman|
|$5m||Alkimos||Pearce||3.6%||Attorney-General Christian Porter|
|$4.5m||Port Macquarie tidal pool||Cowper||12.6%||Nationals Pat Conaghan|
|$2m||Mango Hill College||Petrie||1.7%||Liberal Luke Howarth|
The Coalition won each of these highly contested seats except Corangamite, which was one of just two Coalition-held seat to be snatched by Labor.
The Georges River Council said funding discussions had stopped under the FFWSS program because the Kogarah pool had closed.
Torquay pool up in the air
Similarly, the future of the Torquay pool, which received a $20 million grant in Corangamite, is uncertain due to budgetary pressures on the council, which has been asked to contribute funds.
An email from Liberal Sarah Henderson — who lost Corangamite at the 2019 election but was made a senator this year — cited by the Geelong Advertiser two weeks ago states, “it seems unreasonable to me that council would not make a capital contribution when this is such a vital community facility”.
“No other council in Australia has received such substantial government funding to construct an aquatic facility,” she said.
The ABC understands the Surf Coast Council is worried that building the pool would require a significant contribution from the council, as well as major upkeep costs.
A study six years ago found a 25-metre pool on the site would cost $30 million.
Senator Henderson campaigned on the promise of a 50-metre pool.
“Given the government funding commitment for an aquatic facility in Torquay, Surf Coast Shire Council is undertaking a feasibility study to determine whether it will proceed with the project,” said Keith Baillie, the chief executive of the Surf Coast Shire Council.
‘Sports rorts on steroids’
Labor sports spokesman senator Don Farrell said the scheme was “sports rorts on steroids”.
“We now know that there is yet another slush fund program used by the Government to pork-barrel seats, and this one is even bigger,” he said.
“In March last year, Scott Morrison and Bridget McKenzie announced $150 million for female facilities and said more details would be released later in the year — the only further information released was direct letters to those organisations lucky enough to get a share of the fund.”
Greg Blood, a former Sports Commission employee and sport policy historian, said while both parties used sport to campaign, the Coalition was more effective in doing so in contestable electorates.
“My concern is that election-funding announcements are bypassing the need for evidence-based decision-making in regards to community sport facilities,” he said.
“Funding facilities without an assessment of need is unlikely to provide optimal outcomes.”
The $150 million fund, which sets aside $20 million in 2019-20 expanding to $50 million in 2022-23, was budgeted under the infrastructure portfolio.
The Prime Minister’s press release in March 2019 launching the scheme promised “further details on the change room and swimming facilities fund will be released later in 2019”.
It remained within the Department of Infrastructure, overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, and was included in that department’s incoming government brief.
The brief stated “advice on guidelines and program arrangements will be provided in June 2019”.
The program was handed to the Department of Health under responsibility of Sport Minister Richard Colbeck in August.
The Health Department stated the program was not open to applications, and “all proponents were selected by Government”.
It said there were are no published guidelines nor was there criteria for the allocation of funding.
The Department of Health said Senator Colbeck had responsibility for the program in consultation with the Prime Minister.