Sport Australia is the independent body which ranked applicants for the $100 million sport grants program on merit, and provided recommendations to the office of the then-minister, Bridget McKenzie.
The government has been accused of ignoring those recommendations, and instead systematically doling out the cash to projects based in seats it wanted to win at last year’s federal election.
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A report by the Auditor-General found the grants program was compromised by political considerations.
“This process drew upon considerations other than the assessment criteria, such as project locations including Coalition ‘marginal’ electorates and ‘targeted’ electorates,” 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.”
A contradictory report by Phil Gaetjens – head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and formerly Scott Morrison’s chief of staff – disputed that finding.
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The officials from Sport Australia will be asked to shed more light on the matter when they’re grilled by a Senate committee today.
One unresolved question is the extent to which the Prime Minister’s office was involved in the program.
At the National Press Club last month, Mr Morrison was unambiguous.
“All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us. As every Prime Minister has always done,” he said.
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But yesterday, it emerged 136 emails about the scheme were exchanged between the offices of Mr Morrison and Ms McKenzie.
Ms McKenzie also sent a list of grants she intended to approve to Mr Morrison the day before he called the election.
“The Prime Minister has claimed his office’s only involvement in the corrupt sports rorts scheme was to pass on information,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said yesterday.
“So why has the Audit Office told the Senate that there were 136 emails about sports rorts going back and forth between the Prime Minister’s office and Senator McKenzie’s office in under six months?
“The rort knows no bounds.”
“We passed on information about other funding options or programs relevant to project proposals, and we provided information based on the representations made to us,” Mr Morrison said in response.
He pointed out that Mr Albanese himself had overseen an infrastructure program that funded ineligible projects when Labor was last in government.
“The Leader of the Opposition is trying to throw mud while he himself sits in an absolute swamp,” said Mr Morrison.
It’s worth noting that, according to the Auditor-General, there is no evidence projects featuring in representations from the Prime Minister’s office were more likely to be funded.
Meanwhile, one of the applicants snubbed by Ms McKenzie has spoken out, demanding the money it believes it was robbed of under the scheme.
The Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby Club scored 98/100 on Sport Australia’s merit-based scale, but did not receive funding under the program, while other projects with far lower scores got hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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“We are left with no doubt that the action of denying our club the funds we were assessed as deserving was indeed discriminatory and politically motivated,” the club said in a submission to the Senate inquiry.
“Our club, and I am sure many others, are very wary of spending valuable time and emotional energy preparing submissions that may be discarded not based on merit criteria, but based on political manoeuvring. We believe there is a significant trust deficit that needs to be remedied.”