Devastated Victorian clubs tell of loss of faith over ‘sports rort’ affair

Mr Purser told the senators: “Club members were disappointed to be told their application had been unsuccessful – it was even more disappointing to find out through the media our merit score of 89 [out of 100]. .

“We believe the process should have been more transparent and the selection criteria should have been used.”

The club, in Melbourne’s north-east, has more than 500 members, and last year applied for a $500,000 federal sports grant to upgrade its facilities, which Mr Purser described as “Third World”.

The $2.7 million project (of which the state government had chipped in $2 million and the club $200,000) has involved building a permanent pavilion. It is currently a “shelter shed abutting two shipping containers converted into a canteen”.

Mr Purser said the club had invested all of its money into building and maintaining its world-class synthetic pitch, and needed government help to upgrade its deteriorating facilities.

But despite receiving a score of 89 out of 100 in an assessment by the Australian Sports Commission – placing the club on a top priority list to receive the funds – it missed out.

“The process of being able to even apply for a grant has just been so long,” Mr Purser told The Age.

Senators Nita Green, Anthony Chisholm and Raff Ciccone in Melbourne on Thursday. Credit:Justin McManus

“There’s a feeling you can’t trust the process. Clubs operate on volunteers, and it’s hard to get volunteers when you feel your time is wasted. There’s a level of frustration that no one’s prepared to give you a straight answer, everyone has the opportunity to wriggle out of responsibility.”

Nillumbik Shire Council has since agreed to provide the club with the funding it missed out on, but Mr Purser said the process had been disappointing considering all the hurdles that needed to be jumped before the club could even apply for federal assistance.

Representatives of six clubs were among more than a dozen people who gave evidence to the Senate committee on Thursday. Attendees included representatives of the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club and the Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby, two councils, legal experts and the heads of Accountability Roundtable.

Constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said neither the Sports Minister nor the Prime Minister had the legal authority to approve the grants as they were funds administered through Sport Australia, a statutory body.

“The [then] minister’s behaviour may have been illegal,” Professor Twomey said. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse – that’s what Centrelink clients are told, despite the fact that they rarely, if ever, have access to legal advice. Ministers, on the other hand, are well supported. They cannot rely on ignorance for exculpation.”

Glen Eira Council chief executive Rebecca McKenzie said while she acknowledged it was impossible to fund all applications, “we should have a reasonable expectation that when we make an application, that application will be considered on merit against a transparent criteria”.

The committee chairman, Labor senator Anthony Chisholm, said the federal government should fund the clubs that had missed out, adding it was a perfect “stimulus package” for an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

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