A small news item in The Age, Sunday 23 August 2009 informs us:
The Federal Government has thrown its support behind the redevelopment of Carlton Football Club’s Princes Park stadium, kicking in $4.5 million.
And when Godwin Grech was very much in the news, there was speculation that he might have had some connection to John Howard’s decision to give $8 million to his (Grech’s) “beloved” Western Bulldogs Football Club.
Sounds like a wonderful idea doesn’t it? Who could possibly object to that, especially when you use a disarming vernacular expression like “kicking in” – the sort of expression you use when proposing to acquire a communal slab of tinnies.
Actually, it’s a dreadful idea. What on earth is the national government doing concerning itself with an issue as local as the redevelopment of a privately owned football ground? Doesn’t the national government have enough to do dealing with genuinely national issues such as defence, foreign policy, social security, customs, immigration, quarantine, civil aviation, and so the list goes on.
And can’t the redevelopment of sports facilities be safely left to local government, local communities and sponsors?
Our Commonwealth Ministers, like their state counterparts, never tire of telling us how busy they are. A vast slab of their workload could be shed if they would just stop concerning themselves with matters that are not national in nature.
And what are the open and transparent criteria by which it was decided to give this amount of money to this particular private organisation (transparency is a virtue we are told)? Is there a Commonwealth program for this type of thing? Was there a call for proposals to see which sporting club could best spend $4.5 million of taxpayers’ money? I am a member of Melbourne Rugby Union Football Club, which would like to redevelop its ground, so it could use a million or two, an amount which would hardly be noticed. Besides which, rugby is a much better game, the game they play in heaven, so all our church-going political leaders would have to be in favour of that. Where do we apply?
And oh by the way, how do these grants fit into the user pays fixation?
Regrettably I have some insights into how all this nonsense began, because in 1973-74 I was an officer in the Local and Regional Affairs Branch of the Treasury, covering Tom Uren’s Department of Urban and Regional Development. The thrust of this Department’s raison d’être was sound, but at times Tom’s ideas were not.
One day a letter came in from Tom Uren to the Treasurer, Frank Crean, saying that the Hunter Valley Development Association had sought financial assistance to the tune of $25,000, and Tom had heard that they were doing good work and felt that the Commonwealth should agree to it.
We gave Friendly Frank the standard advice – that the Commonwealth only supports national institutions and that at the present time it only gave grants in aid to the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia and the Red Cross.
Frank Crean was not in the habit of preferring the advice of his Treasury officers to the wishes of his colleagues, and besides, Tom had been told by someone that the Hunter Valley Development Association people were doing a good job and deserved his support, so Tom had his way, and the HVDA got its $25,000. The dam wall was well and truly breached, and pretty soon a trickle of funds became a flood. The Anglican Church was murmuring about selling its Glebe Estate in Sydney because it couldn’t afford to maintain it, so we had better help them out. Someone was wanting to purchase and redevelop Emerald Hill in Melbourne, so we had better rescue Emerald Hill (oddly enough, right in the heart of Frank’s electorate).
Before long we were doing things like paying for the renovation of a hotel in Windsor because it had important heritage values. No doubt it did, but it was also a privately owned and functioning hotel. We suggested that, if the Commonwealth felt motivated to finance this renovation maybe it could be by means of a loan rather than a grant, as the owner would be getting a nice little capital gain out of this expenditure of public moneys, and no doubt would be able to achieve both increased occupancy and higher rent. It was made clear that this too was conservative thinking that might have been appropriate to the Age of Menzies, but certainly wasn’t appropriate to the Whitlam era, so the hotel owner got his grant.
The breaching of the “national organisations only” principle created a wonderful opportunity for pork-barrelling and before the Whitlam era was out the Commonwealth was suddenly discovering a need to assist with the financing of community facilities at Thebarton and somewhere else in Adelaide, and I am sure that there was no connection whatever between these fast-tracked grants and the fact that Don Dunstan was facing an election at the time.
It was downhill all the way from there and pretty soon there wasn’t enough money left over for the national institutions to get their grants in aid, and our life savers, one of the iconic sights of an Australian beach, began to be adorned with one of the most recognised logos in the world, the logo of a certain well-known health drink, the one with the secret formula reportedly locked away in a safe in Atlanta, Georgia, so as well as saving lives our lifesavers acquired the new role of encouraging our children to imbibe this drink.
The nadir was reached in the run-up to the 2004 Federal election, when the unlamented National Party Parliamentary Secretary De-Anne Kelly began shelling out Regional Partnerships money to organisations that had neglected to apply for it, and Area Consultative Committees gave multi-million dollar grants to private businesses like the Mareeba Zoo, about four or five months before it collapsed.
So let us have done with all this nonsense, let us simplify government and have the national government expend its efforts and our money solely on causes that are truly of national significance.