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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Sports Grants and Bushfire Mitigation

GARETH PARKER: In the studio for the first time in 2020, the Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter. Good morning.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes, morning. And morning to your listeners. Good to be back.

GARETH PARKER: Plenty's happened since we last spoke, including a national bushfire crisis and, I think, a genuine scandal that the public are entitled to be upset about in the way that the sports infrastructure grants have been allocated. Bridget McKenzie, the Nationals Deputy Leader, was the Sports Minister who - according to the Australian National Audit Office - embarked on her own parallel process to dole out this money, and it seemed that she was doling out- or more than seemed, the Australian National Audit Office concluded that she was dolling them out in a way that had political considerations rather than merit considerations. Isn't this exactly the sort of thing that makes the public vomit about the conduct of their politicians?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well ministers- it's not unusual for ministers to have final authority on grants, and I think there's a clear distinction between a situation where the Department assesses a grant as ineligible or that it shouldn't be given in a circumstance where the minister imposes their own ranking inside an eligibility ranking provided by a department. That's not unusual, I mean, I-

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] But in this case, the Australian National Audit Office says that there was no evident process that Bridget McKenzie followed other than political considerations.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I don't think that's exactly what they said. They said that she brought in to it considerations that were different from those from the department. But I mean, that's not unusual…

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] But not just different from the department, but different from the published guidelines around eligibility and how they should have been doled out.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: But what does that- ultimately, does that mean that a minister never overrides the department- I was Social Services Minister. I had more grants than just about any minister going, and some of them were grant programs where the Department had total control, some were where the guidelines gave me, as the Minister, final authority. I mean, in one instance where the Department had total control, they gave money in a community grants to a UFO watching group, and quite naturally the media were very critical of that, and I overrode them. So the idea that the ministers can't exact executive authority on these types of things, I just- I've never sort of believed that is actually the best or right process. Sometimes the department will have total control, sometimes the guidelines will give the minister authority and approval. And in this instance, had Bridget McKenzie's final approval process not gone into the mix, then less Labor electorates would have gotten the money.

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] That's not the point though. I've heard that raised in the Government's defence.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: [Talks over] Well, how was that not a point?

GARETH PARKER: That's not the point. The point is that this isn't about- this shouldn't be about politics, this should be about community sporting groups. This should be the most deserving, most eligible, most worthy recipients getting the money. And that's not what happened.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: But that's a question of judgment according to scale and criteria. And what the accusation is…

GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] It's a question of criteria that Sport Australia had determined for itself under the guidelines of the program.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: But what the accusation has been, when people use words like rorts or pork barrelling, is that somehow it's gone to favour one group of electorates from one side of politics over the other. And there's no demonstrable evidence of that.

GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] No, the implication is that it favours seats that the Coalition wanted to win at the election year.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I mean, how do you- how do you ever win that argument?

GARETH PARKER: Take it up with the National Auditor-General.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean, he's made three recommendations. They seem to me to be reasonable recommendations. But if a minister takes a slightly different view to the ranking of what are all eligible projects from a department, in this case Sports Australia, and more go to Labor or Liberal or vice versa, you get criticised. If your authority being exercised in that way means that the other side of politics get more than they would have got with merely departmental oversight, you get criticised. I mean, it's an unwinnable situation. But what I fundamentally don't accept is that ministers should not be involved in final approval for projects. That's their job, and they are an assessor with their office of the type of things that you've indicated. I mean, my electorate from recollection got three of these projects. I wish we'd gotten more. I mean, many of them are about creating change rooms for girls so they don't have to get changed behind the towel being held up by mum at their local sporting club. But having a ministerial authority and oversight on those things, I think is completely fair and reasonable. And all of these projects were deemed to be eligible. All of them.

GARETH PARKER: But some that were more worthy missed out. That is a fact. That happened.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, that is an assessment that was put by a ranking of the department’s, in this case Sports Australia, which is a Commonwealth corporate entity. And the minister had also a ranking, and the two of those were interposed and produced the final result.

GARETH PARKER: The Prime Minister's asked you to review this. That to me seems not particularly credible. With all due respect to you and your professional abilities and responsibilities, how on earth could you be the person reviewing whether the Minister's done a good job when she's one of your ministerial colleagues, and most of your fellow ministers' electorates have benefited?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: So, I'm not investigating or reviewing. The Auditor-General raised a question which he and his report didn't answer. He said that the guidelines provided clearly that Minister had final approval and that's not unusual in guidelines. Sports Australia is a slightly unusual organisation, and it's not a department, it's a corporate Commonwealth entity. What the Auditor-General said that he was unclear as to what the legislative or other authoritative basis to have guidelines of that type were. The PM, given that that question was unanswered by the Auditor-General, has asked me the commission advice to try and answer that question. It's not an investigation or anything like that. I'm just commissioning advice of Australian Governments Solicitors to try and find an answer to a question that was unanswered by the Auditor-General.

GARETH PARKER: Ordinarily, if a corporate entity was asked to do something by Minister, there'd be a written direction. There was no written direction in this case; isn't that part of the problem here too?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well that was one of the issues raised by the auditor general, but there's a longstanding- well, there's a provision in the relevant act, I think it's a section 11, which provides an overarching ability of the minister to direct the question amongst many other potential questions is whether or not that applied in these circumstances. I'm simply being asked to do what Attorney-General since Federation have been asked to do, which is to try and clarify a legal point that's been raised in this case by the Auditor-General.

GARETH PARKER: The fact that Bridget McKenzie was a member of a shooting club that received a grant, she shouldn't be involved in that decision making process as it pertains to that club nor should other ministers be involved in decisions where clubs they are members of. I mean, that's a fairly established practice of good governance isn't it? She's done the wrong thing there?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well look, I just don't know the individual circumstances about…

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] Have you not read the media report?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I've read the media reports, and I know that the media reports that Bridget was a member of a club. It's not unusual for a local member to be a member or a patron of a club that might get a grant, in this case of course the local member was also the Minister. As to the procedures for that particular grant application, I just don't have the information to comment…

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] Would it be good practice to conflict yourself out and not have any role in the determination?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, one of the things that the Auditor-General said was that the conflict of interest framework needed greater clarity in this grants program, and that was in terms of its application to Sports Australia and others. So, I mean- that's the recommendation I think is fair minded. But that was a recommendation direct to Sports Australia.

GARETH PARKER: But do you need that much guidance to say, if you're a member of an organisation, you shouldn't be involved in decision-making about that organisation when it comes to distributing taxpayer's money?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Then again, I just don't know the individual circumstances…

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] As a principle, is that a reasonable principle?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I mean, again, the number of- like the list of clubs that I, as a local member, would be a patron of or a member of in my electorate is just enormous. And like we actually have to keep a rolling list…

GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] There's a reason you have to keep a long list of it, so that these situations don't arise.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: [Talks over] Yeah, of course. Yeah. But the situations are different depending on your level of involvement and being a mere patron or, you know, a paper member of a club is different from actually having a very active role in a club.

GARETH PARKER: So you're saying it turns on the level of Bridget McKenzie's involvement in the shooting club?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think, to an extent it does. Yeah.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. There have been some who have said this whole affair is further evidence that you need a federal corruption investigating body, a CCC, an ICAC of that nature - what do you say to that?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean, we've committed ourselves to such a body and that announcement will come very soon in terms of providing the draft legislation for consultation. The way that that would work in these sort of circumstances, and you know, grants is one of those areas that gets public attention from time to time, precisely because there is a power for executive Government to exercise authority on final approvals. In a grant set of circumstances, you might have a preliminary review of a grants program as there has been here, as there was for the Labor Member for Ballarat, where it was found that she was approving things that were not eligible at all. If the Auditor-General considered that it evidenced anything greater than a process problem, they could refer it to the body that we're creating, and they would have full powers of a royal commission and indeed, in many circumstances, greater powers than a royal commission to investigate it.

GARETH PARKER: Twenty-six years ago a Labor sports minister resigned for conduct that is pretty much a carbon copy of this - why have standards changed?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I don't know whether I'd call it a carbon copy, you're talking about the Ros Kelly affair, I mean one of the recommendations from the Auditor-General here is that there be better recording of reasons and again that seems, without having been involved in this program, a reasonable recommendation to make.

GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Let's not over complicate it, the Minister's involving herself, deciding how to distribute grants based on political considerations. That's what Ros Kelly did, she went - why shouldn't Bridget Mackenzie go?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well what Ros Kelly did was approve things that were deemed to be ineligible by the primary department with no records whatsoever, indeed the whole whiteboard affair was because, I think, in answer to a question from Peter Costello she acknowledged that the best she could say that there was for a recording of how grants were administered totally contrary to the recommendations of the relevant department, was that they were on a whiteboard and wiped off. Now, that is not an analogous situation to here, the recommendation, the third recommendation to the Sport - to Sports Australia, was a better record keeping around reasons and particularly because there's quite a sophisticated scoring system that they engage in, fair enough, but I don't think that's an analogous situation to that event that occurred twenty odd years ago.

GARETH PARKER: So you just write it out. Politically.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think, well there are three recommendations directed through Sports Australia - one to government. To my mind they look like fair and reasonable assessments of improvements in process. But you know, when you say write it out, that assumes that there's something here that requires some further level of attention in terms of probity. Now, I just don't believe that there is, based on what I've seen. I mean as I say, ministers exercise authority, the minister had guidelines in front of her which gave her final approval. Her job is to exercise authority and she did, the question is whether or not that authority was exercised well. Now, there'll be different judgements on that, but I say again, had she not intervened and overlaid her assessment on top of the department's assessment, less Labor seats would have gotten funding. And, you know, the leader of the Opposition warmly welcomed the funding in his electorate.

GARETH PARKER: When it comes to future bushfires, how big a contributor is climate change, how big a contributor is fuel and mitigation and the questions of those sort?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think they're both clearly contributors. But, one of those two things, Australia's got a much greater ability to control in a short and immediate term to a very high degree. And the other, our ability to control is less. I mean, being a very small percentage of global emissions, meeting what we think are fair and reasonable targets means that we're doing our fair share internationally. But fuel loads in national parks and you know having been in West Australian Government here, it's not an uncomplicated situation because back burning is a difficult thing. It depends on weather patterns and it's seasonal, but in many states we're setting targets that we don't get close to meeting at all. And I think that either raises questions about the nature of the targets or the nature of the programs, but clearly one huge problem, that if you talk to people who are on the ground fighting fires and who are involved in land management, is that the fuel load is too high. Now, you can argue and I think it's a good argument that the longer, hotter, drier summers which are causing higher fuel load, as well as other risks, are about global climate change. But our ability to affect that at a very low percentage of CO2 emissions is nowhere near as high as our ability to affect the fuel loads that we face every summer, and that because of the nature of climate change we're going to face summer after summer after summer. So let's control, to the greatest extent possible, the things that we can control. I say again, it's not uncomplicated. But my assessment would be that there is not enough fuel load management.

GARETH PARKER: Doesn't the West Australian experience actually prove the point that you're making? We had a series of catastrophic bushfires about four or five summers in a row, we had a series of inquiries, two of them led by Mick Keelty. That led to a greater focus on exactly what the Prime Minister's talking about which is fuel mitigation efforts, which maybe we have been seasonally luckier than Victoria, New South Wales, I don't know, maybe we've tried harder than they have, I don't know. But, I know that we've put more, both the Barnett Government and now the McGowan Government, have put more resources, literally more money into hazard reduction burning and we've done a better job at hitting those targets and in some cases exceeding those targets. That has lowered the risk in the south west of this state.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: That's completely right. And I think the Barnett Government, McGowan Government, both deserve congratulations for that. I mean, that is a primary example of controlling the things that we know are a cause of bushfires that we can control. They have done exactly what you've said, that hasn't been mimicked in other states to the extent that it has been here, and as you say, why is that? Is that because there's been seasonality differences? But, we don't know the answers of those questions, if you have a commission of inquiry or a royal commission, they're precisely the types of questions you actually have to get the answers for. I mean, should there be nationwide and consistent land management and fuel load and back burning quotas? If they're not met, should there be regular reviews or there should be incentive or disincentive systems to make sure that they're met. Should you be adjusting the targets based on what you know about seasonal conditions and all these questions I think are life questions, and I agree. I think WA's handled this really, really well over the last couple of years but there'd be preliminary evidence to suggest that it hasn't been handled as well in other states.

GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, thank you very much for your time.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thank you. Cheers, Gareth.