‘Shameless’: Audit damns Coalition sports cash
Andrew Tillett

Senior minister Bridget McKenzie approved hundreds of applications from grassroots sporting groups for taxpayer-funded grants because they were in marginal seats, a damning auditor-general’s report has found.

Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie is under fire for targeting sports grants to marginal seats. Alex Ellinghausen

Labor is demanding Senator McKenzie’s scalp after the Australian National Audit Office found her office overruled recommendations by the former Australian Sports Commission board – now known as Sport Australia – to dole out money under the $100 million program, designed to pay for changing rooms, lighting and other community infrastructure.

Auditors found $41 million was splurged on projects in 47 marginal or targeted seats.

The audit was triggered after Labor complained that Liberal candidate Georgina Downer handed over a giant novelty cheque worth $127,373 to a bowling club while campaigning for the seat of Mayo last year.

“The award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice,” the report said.

“The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition, as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 election.

“Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed against the published program guidelines.”

Senator McKenzie, who was sports minister at the time but now holds the agriculture portfolio and is the Nationals’ deputy leader, was unapologetic about her stewardship of the program.

“The Community Sport Infrastructure Program was a very popular program that funded 684 projects right across the country to help get people up and moving,” she said.

“All projects selected for funding were eligible to receive it.”

But the current Sports Minister, Richard Colbeck, pledged there would be changes to how funding was distributed, saying Sport Australia was taking “quick action” to address the recommendations.

“The government will continue to work with the board and senior management to implement the measures the agency is putting in place to strengthen future grant delivery,” he said.

The fresh claims of government pork-barrelling has echoes of the infamous “sports rorts” affair, which cost the Keating government’s sports minister Ros Kelly her job in 1994 when it was revealed she used a whiteboard in her office to allocate funding.

‘Shameless politicisation’

Opposition sports spokesman Don Farrell said Senator McKenzie should be stood down and a full list of the projects she picked and rejected must be published.

“The Morrison government’s shameless politicisation of taxpayers’ money meant for community sports clubs is appalling, unacceptable and cannot go unpunished,” he said.

Among the auditor-general’s findings, 417 of the 684 applications that received funding over the program’s three rounds in late 2018 and early 2019 were below the assessment criteria threshold if the money had been distributed purely on merit.

Of these applications, 71 per cent them were in Coalition or targeted seats and they shared 74 per cent of the funding.

Sports Australia’s recommendation for funding for 294 projects was overruled, while the minister’s office approved funding for 420 that had not been endorsed by the sports body.

Auditors learned staff in Senator McKenzie’s office used a spreadsheet to conduct a “parallel assessment process” that included an analysis on whether an applicant was in a marginal or targeted seat.

Senator McKenzie’s office in November 2018 identified 705 projects in marginal and targeted seats, 481 of them in 30 seats held by Coalition MPs.

Ninety-eight projects were identified in just four seats held by independents, while 126 projects were identified in 13 Labor seats.

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