Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
Date: Friday, 14 February 2020
MATHIAS CORMANN: Thank you very much. Firstly, in relation to the coronavirus, as you are aware the National Security Committee of Cabinet last night decided to extend the travel restrictions for foreign nationals who spent time recently in mainland China by a further week.
We understand that that causes disruptions. We are very mindful of the impact, potential impact of those decisions on the Australian economy. However, we are acting on the advice of medical experts. The Chief Medical Officer at the Commonwealth level and all the Chief Medical Officers in their respective states. We are focused on keeping the Australian community safe. So far, the measures that we have taken have been successful in helping to contain what is a very significant public health risk.
In relation to the sports grants program and the Auditor-General's report, let me stress again, very, very emphatically, as is reported on page 9 of the Auditor-General's report itself. No project which was funded was assessed as ineligible at the time the assessment was made. No program that was funded, under the sports grants program, was assessed as ineligible. That is something that the Auditor-General's officers actually again confirmed yesterday at the Senate select committee inquiry hearing. So the proposition that somehow decisions were made to allocate funding to ineligible projects is false. The Auditor-General himself, in his report, made very clear that no project which received funding was assessed as ineligible when the funding decisions were made. That was confirmed again last night.
Happy to take questions.
QUESTION: But at one point these clubs may have been eligible. Is it the problem that by the time funding was delivered that they weren't?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The point here is when the Minister exercised her discretion in relation to funding decisions, this is something that is very clear in the Auditor-General's report and it was made very clear again yesterday, when the assessments were made in relation to the various project applications, not a single project which received funding had been assessed as ineligible. That is in contrast to what happened in Anthony Albanese's own portfolio when funding allocations were made under a program that he was overall the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for, which were, in fact, ineligible. Anthony Albanese's comments today are incredibly hypocritical given his performance in his time in Government and the scathing, the scathing Auditor-General's reports that were issued at the time when he was the Minister for Infrastructure.
QUESTION: Can you clarify though the Auditor-General's report today revealed that 43 per cent of projects that got funding under the scheme were actually ineligible, so by the time they actually received the funding.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Prime Minister and all of us, all we have been doing is actually to quote the Auditor-General's own report. The Auditor-General's own report, page 9. I invite everyone to look at it closely, page 9 of the Auditor-General's report makes very clear that no project which received funding had been assessed as ineligible. Senator Canavan asked the question yesterday of Mr Boyd representing the Auditor-General’s office whether any of the projects which received funding had been assessed as ineligible for funding by Sport Australia. The answer was no, an emphatic no.
QUESTION: But is the issue that by the time they received funding there was a difference they were no longer eligible?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The question here is, did Senator McKenzie as the Minister for Sports exercise her ministerial discretion and her judgement, when she was making decisions on funding applications for various projects appropriately. Very clearly every project which received funding was eligible. No project which received funding had been assessed as ineligible at that time.
QUESTION: But by the time they received the funding, there is a discrepancy there. So is it someone’s job to stop that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I make it very clear again, no project which received funding, no project which received funding under this sports grants program was assessed as ineligible at the time the decision to allocate funding was made. That is an extremely important point.
QUESTION: Have voters been mislead here though, because there is a discrepancy here?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Auditor-General's report is extremely clear. The Auditor-General’s report on page 9, in black and white, makes very clear that no project which received funding under this program had been assessed as ineligible. None. When asked the question yesterday, and I invite you to review the Hansard transcript of the Senate select committee hearing last night, when Senator Canavan asked a question of the Auditor-General office, Mr Boyd responded. The question was, were any of the projects which received funding assessed as ineligible by Sports Australia? The emphatic answer was no. That is why we have maintained and continue to maintain that all of the projects which received funding as a result of decisions made by the Minister at the time, were eligible at the time those decisions were made.
QUESTION: Do you think that voters will actually accept this explanation and the organisation of this program?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is a successful program, a very successful, popular program, which has made a significant difference in many communities around Australia. Of course there was more demand than available resources. That is why prioritisation decisions had to be made. But let's be very clear. The recommendations that came up from Sports Australia to the Minister would have disadvantaged Labor electorates to an inappropriate degree. Only 26 per cent of Labor electorates would have received funding under the recommendations made by Sports Australia. As a result of the decisions made by Minister McKenzie, the proportion of Labor electorates receiving funding and projects in Labor electorates receiving funding increased to 35 per cent. So that is as a result of the discretion of the Minister overriding what she felt was an inappropriate bias in the recommendations that came forward. As a result of that, there was a fairer distribution of the available funding.
QUESTION: Do you admit though that this report will certainly raise more questions?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We take the Auditor-General's report very seriously. We have already said that we accept all of the recommendations. Three recommendations were addressed to Sports Australia. They are acting on those. One recommendation relates to the application of the Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines to Commonwealth corporate entities. We have said that we would accept that recommendation as well. We are currently in the process of making that happen.
QUESTION: Can you explain why projects that were rated fifty out of a hundred are more deserving when eligible projects with much higher ratings get rejected?
MATHIAS CORMANN: When decisions are made nationally, to allocate limited resources to a large number of potential projects, there are a whole range of issues that you need to consider. Including a fair geographic spread and a whole range of other considerations. In the end, you receive advice, but Governments and Ministers are elected to make decisions. We are accountable for those decisions. We were accountable for those decisions at the last election. The Australian people re-elected us to be the Government of Australia.
QUESTION: So why won't you release the report by the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet into this program.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Very simply, because it is a report which was prepared for the consideration of a Cabinet committee. It is a report which provides advice and informs the deliberative processes of Cabinet. Under the Westminster system of government, of responsible government, for hundreds of years, we have maintained the system of Cabinet confidentiality, because Cabinet confidentiality is a cornerstone of good government. Without cabinet confidentiality you do not get the best possible decisions, in the public interest out of the government. Labor governments in the past have maintained the very important principle of Cabinet confidentiality. We are maintaining it. I put it to you that Labor governments in the future will maintain it for good reason.
QUESTION: Wouldn't it help to restore the confidence in this program though if there was a very transparent approach to this?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is a very transparent approach to this. We are answering … interrupted
QUESTION: How can you say? Is it because there is something to hide?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is your view. That is your opinion. You are entitled to it. But in the end we are answering questions about this day in, day out. I am here answering questions today. There is a Senate select committee inquiry. There is an Auditor-Generals report. The Senate select committee has not even invited the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet yet. This week in the Senate Labor was pushing for completely unprecedented and inappropriate sanction in the Senate against the Government before they even had asked the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Gaetjens, to appear at the Senate select committee hearings. Mr Gaetjens has made very clear that he is prepared to provide a very detailed statement, explaining his findings, to that committee. He is prepared to answer questions. That is being open and accountable and transparent. But the Labor party has not even yet asked him to appear. That just shows you how absolutely outrageous their trampling of Parliamentary conventions was earlier this week in Canberra.
QUESTION: Just on the finance portfolio. Saul Eslake has that said the coronavirus, the bushfires, there might be a quarter of negative growth in the last quarter. Do you see that as a risk? Do you see a recession… [inaudible]
MATHIAS CORMANN: The coronavirus will have an impact on the economy. It is too early to quantify that impact. Let me just say that the Australian economy continues to be very resilient. Do not take my word for it, the RBA Governor as recently as last week made very clear that the economic fundamentals in Australia are strong and that he is quietly optimistic about the future. Australia is now into its 29th year of continuous growth. We are pursuing a pro-growth agenda as a Government, with lower income taxes, more investment in infrastructure, an ambitious free trade agenda, helping our exporting businesses get better access to markets around the world, a deregulation agenda. The monetary policy settings are very attractive with a very low official cash rate and indeed our exchange rate remains internationally very competitive. We are quietly optimistic. We are facing a series of global economic headwinds and some domestic economic challenges, but the Australian economy continues to grow. Employment growth continues to be very strong and wages continue to grow faster than inflation. So we are quietly optimistic that we will continue to grow into the future.