Fancy shelling out a cool $5 million to build a pool that’ll cost up to 12 times that amount, without a plan and in a suburb so new it’s barely even on the map?
- The pool in Perth’s north secured $5 million in federal funding during the 2019 election
- It was part of a much-criticised government program designed to build change rooms for women
- A spokesman for the Sports Minister said the grant was “consistent” with Commonwealth grant rules
Well, if you’re a taxpayer, you already have.
And public servants aren’t happy about it, warning the Morrison government that an election cash splash on a pool in Perth’s northern outskirts presents a “significant risk” — to what, they don’t say, but their concern is unmistakable.
They’ve even noted that if the pool is dug, construction won’t start for at least another five years, which is four years beyond expiry of the original funding envelope.
And all because the Coalition was desperate to win a marginal seat at risk of being snatched by the Labor Party in the 2019 federal election.
The “Northern Suburbs Aquatic Facility” secured $5 million in federal funding during the 2019 election under the Coalition’s much-criticised Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) program.
The FFWSS, described by the Opposition as “sports rorts on steroids”, had no guidelines, no tender process and required no application form.
The program was supposedly meant to fund female change rooms but, as revealed by the ABC last year, 80 per cent of the $150 million budgeted for the FFWSS program was plunged on building swimming pools in just 11 Liberal and National Party-held seats, most of them marginal.
The Northern Suburbs Aquatic Facility was one of two pools promised by the Coalition in the WA electorate of Pearce, held by then-attorney-general Christian Porter, which the Liberals feared might be taken by Labor in the May 2019 election.
Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal that the Department of Health had considerable doubts about the project long after the grant had been announced.
“There is one grant which the department has assessed as significant risk,” the department told Sports Minister Richard Colbeck in June 2020.
“The City of Wanneroo, Northern Suburbs Aquatic Facility project will not commence until 2026-27 which is four years after the project funding is finished.
“The [pool] is planned for a future suburb within the City of Wanneroo, which is still in the planning stage.
“Precise details of the construction are still to be determined, pending finalisation of a feasibility study and completion of planning for the new suburb.”
The department recommended initial funding for the project be delayed until 2022-23 to allow the council to provide an “appropriate proposal” for the funding.
“Additionally, if the Department proceeds with a grant it is proposed to stipulate in the grant agreement, that the City of Wanneroo will be required to hold the funding in a special account with all interest earned retained for the specified project,” it wrote.
But the department’s obvious doubts did not discourage the council from asking for federal taxpayers to chip in more money to the project, having already secured $10 million from the WA Government.
City of Wanneroo Mayor Tracey Roberts requested the Commonwealth contribute an extra $15 million towards the project, revealing its total cost would be $40 to $60 million.
Her application was rejected.
“I would encourage the City of Wanneroo to consider a staged approach for the project, including options for the short to medium term, to utilise funding commitments from both the Western Australian and Australian governments,” Senator Colbeck told her in October last year.
A spokesman for Senator Colbeck said the grant was “consistent” with Commonwealth grant rules, and that the council had provided an “appropriate level of documentation” before the funding agreement was “executed” in early 2021.
“No funding is due until mid-2023 and is subject to a range of mandatory requirements being met. The timing of the funding is appropriate given the project’s stage of development,” the spokesman said in a statement.
The City of Wanneroo said a swimming pool for Perth’s northern coastal suburbs had been a “high priority” for a number of years.
“In August 2020, the City was approved for a $5 million grant,” it told the ABC.
“The intended outcomes of the grant were stated in the agreement as: the construction of a functional facility that includes female change rooms and amenities and the reduction of drownings through increased access to learn to swim programs.”
Mr Porter said the project had merit, despite the warnings from health bureaucrats.
“People in the northern coastal suburbs of my electorate know just how much these facilities are needed and, at the last election, they strongly backed the Morrison government’s commitment to support this project,” he told the ABC.
Nationals Minister questioned North Sydney Pool funding
The documents also reveal one of the government’s own frontbenchers questioned a decision to fund an upgrade of the iconic North Sydney Pool, in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The pool was awarded $10 million, after engineers warned it was in dire need of “urgent remedial work”.
Senator Colbeck responded to a letter from then-assistant minister Andrew Gee in late July 2020, after the Nationals MP raised “concerns” about the funding.
“The North Sydney Pool Project aims to upgrade the current facility to increase accessibility within the community and aligns with the grant guidelines,” Senator Colbeck wrote.
The response did not detail what those concerns were.
“Mr Gee passed on a constituent’s mistaken concerns that the funding for the North Sydney Pool had been provided under a regional program,” Senator Colbeck’s office told the ABC.
“The Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream Program is designed to fund projects in regional and urban settings.”
The ABC has contacted Mr Gee’s office to ask about the nature of his original letter.
The Coalition has faced significant criticism over its management of successive grants programs.
Former sports minister Bridget McKenzie quit Cabinet at the height of the original “sports rorts” scandal, after a scathing review by the Auditor-General accused the Coalition of pork-barrelling marginal electorates ahead of the 2019 campaign.
Senator McKenzie denied any wrongdoing, but quit because she had not declared membership of a gun club which received funding under the program.
Last week the Auditor-General raised concerns about another pre-election program, rolling out $660 million in funding for train station carparks.
Again, the Coalition was accused of focusing on Liberal-held or marginal seats, rather than allocating taxpayer funds based on actual need.