A major national sporting code keen for a slice of $150 million earmarked for female changing rooms was assured the program would not be used in an election cash splash, only to see most of it splurged on swimming pools in Coalition-held seats.
- A sports organisation asked the Government if the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream grants would be “utilised pre-election”
- The organisation was told guidelines needed to be developed before grant applications would be considered
- Days later the Coalition made promises funded by the program and guidelines were never developed
The ABC can reveal that just a day before Prime Minister Scott Morrison called last year’s federal election, the sports organisation sought assurances that the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) program would not be used in the campaign.
Sure enough, it received that assurance from the office of Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who oversaw the infrastructure portfolio.
Mr McCormack’s chief of staff Damian Callachor told the code that before any grant applications could be considered, “guidelines” had to be developed.
Mr Callachor also told the sport executive the “nature and size” of the sports program meant “governance and other matters” had to be first established.
But days after this email exchange, obtained by the ABC, the Coalition set about making 41 promises funded by the program, nearly exhausting the four-year program’s funding within five weeks.
This is despite there being no guidelines for the FFWSS program, no tenders, and no application process.
‘Needs guidelines, governance’
As revealed by the ABC earlier this year, 80 per cent of the $150 million budgeted for the FFWSS program was plunged on promises to build swimming pools in just 11 Liberal and National Party-held seats, rather than female change rooms.
And of the $120 million pledged on pools, half went to just two Liberal-held seats — the ultra-marginal Corangamite, which Liberal Sarah Henderson ultimately lost to Labor in the election, and the marginal WA seat of Pearce, which Attorney-General Christian Porter retained.
The FFWSS program, which was meant to complement the scandal-plagued community sports grants program, has been dubbed “sports rorts on steroids” by federal Labor.
But at the time of the program’s launch, major sporting codes had no reason to think it was different to any other federal funding stream.
In April last year, before the election campaign started, one of the codes sought some clarification about the newly established program.
The ABC obtained the email exchange through Freedom of Information. The identity of the sports executive has been redacted.
The executive emailed Mr Callachor, along with the Prime Minister’s sports adviser Chris Daffey and Rebecca Johnson, then an adviser of former sports minister Bridget McKenzie.
“Hi Daff, Damian & Bec,” the April 10 email began.
“Please see attached a spreadsheet of priority projects in each state and territory that may be deemed eligible for funding under the Female Changeroom Fund announced in last week’s Budget.
“Note that some of the projects listed focus purely on change rooms and pavilions, while others are looking to develop state and regional centres/sites that include universal facilities.”
The ABC understands the executive worked for Cricket Australia — although the organisation has declined to confirm or deny that.
The email exchange shows Mr Callachor was first to respond, 13 minutes later, at 12:23pm:
“Appreciate the list, very helpful and comprehensive!” Mr Callachor wrote back.
“The Government will be establishing guidelines for this new program in due course, so we will be in touch following the election.”
The sports executive emailed back at 12:50pm:
“Thanks for this info, Damian. Is the intention therefore that the fund won’t be utilised pre-election?”
Whether he had become suspicious about the program’s potential use is not clear in the email exchange, but Mr Callachor’s response came 38 minutes later:
“A program of this nature and size needs appropriate guidelines, governance and other matters lined up before we can open it to industry to apply for funding. Cheers, Damian.”
Program to ‘support women’s participation in sport’
The very next day, April 11, Mr Morrison visited the Governor-General requesting he dissolve Parliament for a May 18 election.
And within a few days, the first of 41 projects funded under the FFWSS began being announced by election candidates.
Some recipients did not even know they had been given money until they saw it in the local media.
The Surf Coast Shire Council, which is in the Victorian electorate of Corangamite, only discovered it would receive $20 million to build an Olympic-sized pool at Torquay when reported in the Geelong Advertiser on April 15 — five days after Mr Callachor’s assurances.
Mr Morrison described the purpose of the FFWSS program when he launched it alongside Senator McKenzie at a press conference in Penrith on March 30 last year.
“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,” Mr Morrison said.
Senator McKenzie said she wanted to spare women having to get “changed in cars”.
“We’ve got people getting changed behind towels, we’ve got worse still, young women and girls after their games leaving the club, heading home to have a shower and get changed and not bothering to come back,” she said.
Guidelines a ‘framework for delivery, not selection’
No guidelines were ever developed for the FFWSS, despite the Infrastructure Department stating in its incoming brief to Government last year that guidelines would be delivered by June last year.
The Department of Health, which was transferred responsibility for the program from Infrastructure last August, said delivery of the projects funded under FFWSS program would be in keeping with the Community Development Grant (CDG) guidelines.
“This decision was based on consideration that many of the projects had similar characteristics between the two programs,” a spokesman said.
“The guidelines provided the framework for delivery, not selection.”
As for whether any unspent funds in the FFWSS would be reallocated or dispersed, the Department told the ABC: “This is a decision for the Government.”
Mr Callachor did not respond to questions from the ABC. Cricket Australia declined to make a comment.
Mr McCormack’s spokeswoman told the ABC the program was “delivering election commitments made by the Government in the lead-up to and in the 2019 election”.
“In the same way the Labor Party would have required a mechanism to deliver their election commitments, which included pools and change rooms, if they won last year’s election,” the minister’s spokeswoman said.
A spokesman for Christian Porter said the Attorney-General “makes no apologies for advocating successfully on behalf of the people of Pearce for much-needed infrastructure projects such as the Ellenbrook and Alkimos pools,” adding that both projects had enjoyed bipartisan support before the election.
“In fact, Bill Shorten stood in Ellenbrook in November 2018 and committed $17 million to an Ellenbrook pool,” the spokesman said.
“In his press release from that day, Mr Shorten noted that Ellenbrook was one of the fastest-growing communities in the country and said, ‘… Parents shouldn’t have to drive 20km to make sure their kids can learn to swim.'”
He said the local council and state Labor politicians had also campaigned hard to make the facility a reality for many years.