The tactics have been put back into the spotlight after Mayo candidate Georgina Downer was also referred to the Auditor-General for handing out a taxpayer-funded cheque emblazoned with her face and Liberal Party branding to a local bowling club.
Local Labor and independent MPs say they are being notified after they have been awarded and often only from social media posts.
Ms McGowan was sidelined in February by the Nationals candidate Mark Byatt, who presented $3.1 million in Commonwealth grants around her electorate with Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie before Ms McGowan was told.
“By arranging for the unelected candidate to ‘announce’ these grants without due process and transparency, the government appears to have used taxpayer dollars for their own political purposes,” she said
The tactic appears to be part of an nationwide Coalition campaign to maximise the political mileage of the grants, a series of recent candidate appearances shows.
In February, the Mullumbimby-Brunswick Valley Football Club was awarded $200,000 by the Nationals candidate for the seat of Richmond, Matthew Fraser, and Senator McKenzie. The local MP, Labor’s Justine Elliot, said she was only notified two weeks later. The seat is held on a margin of 7 per cent.
A week later, Macquarie’s Wentworth Falls football club was awarded $175,000 by Liberal candidate Sarah Richards and Foreign Minister Marise Payne. The local Labor MP, Susan Templeman, said she was encouraged by Senator McKenzie to “speak to the applicants to advise them of their successful projects” days after the announcement was made. Ms Templeman holds the seat by 5 per cent.
The Liberal candidate for Hindmarsh, Jake Hall-Evans, also presented a “letter of notification” to the Semaphore bowling club in February telling them they had been awarded a $65,000 grant. There were no elected MPs present. Hindmarsh is held by Labor MP Steve Georganas by 1.9 per cent.
In the Northern Territory, Country Liberal Party candidate Kathy Ganley has been called on to advise Department of Immigration integration grant winners they have been successful. The local MP, Luke Gosling, had yet to receive a list of those who had won. He holds the seat by just 1.4 per cent.
Senator McKenzie said applications for these programs undergo a rigorous, competitive, merit-based assessment.
“It is appropriate that as a minister, I have made these important announcements on behalf of the government which will benefit the community,” she said.
She did not respond to questions about whether local MPs had been informed or if the government was targeting marginal electorates with taxpayer cash.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the actions were “nothing short of a rort”.
“Unelected Liberal and Nationals candidates are being told about taxpayer-funded, government grants before sitting MPs so that they can ‘announce’ them as if they were gifts from the Liberal or National Parties,” he said.
Labor used similar tactics when it was in government with appearances by then minister Joel Fitzgibbon awarding $125,000 to beetroot processors in the marginal seat of Wright. Anthony Albanese also touted local road upgrades alongside unelected candidates.
Almost 20 per cent of the taxpayer-funded $624 million allocated to Community Development Grants under the Coalition since 2013 has gone to just five marginal seats, which hold just 2 per cent of the population.
Labor awarded 40 per cent of $568 million in grants to marginal seats they held before they lost the 2013 election, six times the rate of safer seats.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.