The North Brisbane football club received $150,000 through the controversial federal sports grants program despite already having won $138,000 from the Queensland government and a $110,000 grant from the Brisbane city council for the same field surface upgrade.
The Morrison government claims the federal money “complemented” the state grant, but the club was forced to go back to the council for permission to use the local government money to instead build women’s changerooms, after winning funding multiple times for the same project.
The example highlights a feature of the program identified by the auditor-general in a scathing report: that the federal guidelines did not ban – and even encouraged – clubs to seek funding from multiple sources.
It raises new questions about the lack of federal responsibility for sports funding and the potential for double-dipping in the community sport infrastructure grant program.
Despite the report’s finding that the program had a distributional bias towards marginal electorates, the former sports minister Bridget McKenzie is still staring down calls for her to resign over her handling of the program and has received the backing of Nationals leader Michael McCormack. Scott Morrison has referred the issue to his department for investigation.
Brisbane council gave North Brisbane FC $110,000 to upgrade the playing surface and install perimeter fencing at Prentice Park, Lutwyche in the 2018-19 round of its building stronger communities program.
In January 2019 Football Queensland announced that North Brisbane FC had received $137,916 under the Queensland government’s Get Playing Places and Spaces initiative.
The treasurer of North Brisbane FC, Greg Vitulano, told Football Queensland the grant was to get “the playing surface updated but we are also getting a perimeter fence around it”.
“It is actually very picturesque down here at Prentice Park,” he reportedly said.
The club then won $150,395 in the second round of the federal community sport infrastructure grant program.
On 28 February 2019 the Liberal MP for Brisbane, Trevor Evans, announced the federal grant on Facebook, explaining the funding was to upgrade the playing surface and perimeter fencing at Prentice Park.
On 9 December, the Brisbane council’s establishment and coordination committee approved a variation to reallocate the $110,000 grant.
North Brisbane FC announced on Facebook that “funding was initially granted to the club for the purposes of the field upgrade but with other funding sources for that project already secured” it would now be used to build “two additional female-compliant dressing rooms” at the Swinbourne Street end of its clubhouse.
The club thanked Liberal National Party councillor Fiona Hammond for her support of the project and the community leasing department of the council for their advice and facilitation of the process.
Vitulano told Guardian Australia the club had submitted three separate applications to have the field upgraded because it “had a compelling business case”.
“The state and local government also approved the purpose of our project – so you can safely conclude we had a compelling business case and the project was judged correctly, on its merits.”
Applying for separate grants for the same proposed project does not appear to contravene guidelines of any of the three programs.
The Queensland guidelines require disclosure of other intended funding sources.
The Brisbane council guidelines warn that projects that “are considered to be the core responsibility of other levels of government” will not be funded.
However, as legal academic Anne Twomey has noted, sports funding is not a core responsibility of the federal government, a fact that could render the federal grants unconstitutional.
The federal community sport infrastructure grants program guidelines, published by Sport Australia, require disclosure of co-contributions and state that projects with co-contributions “will be considered favourably and scored higher”.
A spokesman for the sports minister, Richard Colbeck, said: “North Brisbane FC declared all relevant details of Queensland government funding, which complemented the community sport infrastructure project but did not replicate it.”
The Australian National Audit Office noted that the sports minister’s staff had considered whether funding should be denied on the basis that applicants had obtained funding from other sources, including other Australian government grants programs, and state and territory funding.
It noted that some projects that received Australian government funding from other sources got sports grants as well, and that “declining to fund projects on the basis that they had secured additional state or territory funding was inconsistent” with the program’s guidelines, which encouraged co-contributions.
The ANAO also noted that eight projects were potentially ineligible because they were completed by the time funding agreements were executed by Sport Australia, a situation which “suggests that … those selected for funding under the program may not have required Australian government funding in order to deliver their projects”.
In August 2018 the Liberal state MP Anthony Roberts announced $1m towards a proposed redevelopment of Boronia Park, in the federal electorate of North Sydney.
The Hunters Hill rugby club also won $500,000 in the third round of the federal program to build new amenities and refurbish the existing facilities at Boronia Park.
Federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman is an honorary patron of the club and has advocated for the upgrade, although he insists the club took the lead in applying for federal funds.
The draft plan of management for the project, dated October 2019, states the project will include a refurbishment of an existing pavilion and new building of up to two storeys and 525 square metres, to include female-friendly changerooms.
Guardian Australia contacted McKenzie for comment.