The Coalition’s controversial sports grants scheme awarded $500,000 to an upmarket, Liberal-linked Perth tennis club boasting “million dollar views”, and $190,000 to a golf club in the Adelaide Hills that wanted to upgrade its foyer to attract more wedding bookings.
The grants scheme also gave $50,000 for solar panels to the exclusive Royal Adelaide Golf Club, one of Australia’s leading courses and a venue that recorded $5.3m revenue last year.
The fresh revelations come as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, continues to defend the program, backing the handling of the $100m community sport infrastructure program by the Nationals’ deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, who was sports minister at the time.
McKenzie has faced pressure to resign after a blistering auditor general report last week found her office had largely ignored Sport Australia’s recommendations on where the money should go and instead distributed it to further the Coalition’s political interests.
The Applecross Tennis Club received a $500,000 grant just two weeks before the May election. The club is located in the safe Liberal seat of Tangney, held by the party’s former state director, Ben Morton.
Morton is a close confidant of Morrison and was seen as a key strategist in the Coalition’s election campaign. The patron of the club is the state Liberal MP for the seat of Bateman, Dean Nalder.
According to the tennis club’s website, it is considered one of the “best located” clubs in Australia, positioned on The Strand on the Swan River foreshore, with “million dollar views of the river and city, 12 grass and two synthetic hard courts”.
“Our attractive air conditioned clubhouse has amazing views of the Swan River and the city skyline … [and] a large patio on the river side for all year round enjoyment of the river views.”
According to the not-for-profit club, the $500,000 would be used to upgrade fencing and to convert four of its existing grass courts into hard courts.
Announcing the grant, Morton said it would support “the hard-working volunteers and members at the Applecross Tennis Club to upgrade their courts”.
“The new courts will encourage new junior members to join the club and improve the skills of competitive and social players of all ages.”
The Applecross club president, Paul Miller, told Guardian Australia the organisation had just “filled in the forms” as required and he had no concerns about the process.
“It is only a rort if you are not in it,” he said. “There is always a winner and a loser in every situation, there is always a left or a right, or a bad or a good or whatever you want to promote.”
Miller rejected suggestions that the club was “wealthy”, saying it struggled and relied on volunteers, but did not object to the characterisation the club had links to the Liberal party.
“They [the Liberal party] have done a huge job for us over a lot of years,” he said.
The stated aim of the grants program is to increase community participation in sport and physical activity.
But the Guardian has found a number of new cases where money has flowed to relatively wealthy golf clubs for projects that had questionable links to boosting community participation.
The government awarded $190,000 to the Tea Tree Gully Golf Club, a picturesque course at the foot of the Adelaide Hills. The club’s 2018 annual report says it planned to use the $190,000 to build a new foyer and install an access lift.
The upgrades were, in part, designed to attract more functions, including weddings, which the club saw as key to its financial success.
“The club is pursuing federal government grant funds to assist with a foyer upgrade and access lift installation,” the 2018 annual report said. “The work is identified as a further key necessity in providing comfortable access to its members and assisting the club to attract functions/events and weddings. There have been too many occasions in recent years where prospective clients have declined to use the club’s facilities due to inadequate access being available to persons with disabilities.”
In announcing its success in obtaining the grant last year, the club said the lift was primarily designed to “improve key services for people with disability, those with limited mobility, the elderly and members who use the club weekly to access facilities provided on the first floor, thus ensuring compliance with relevant disability and anti-discrimination legislation”.
Its general manager Dean Stanton said the income the club derived from functions helped to increase sporting participation, particularly for juniors. He said the club also organised and sponsored many community groups and charities and that federal and state MPs were well aware of the club’s charitable contributions.
The club is located in the safe Labor seat of Makin, held by Tony Zappia.
The exclusive Royal Adelaide Golf Club also received $50,000 through the grant scheme. The money was used as part-payment for solar panels.
The Royal Adelaide Golf Club is a wealthy and exclusive course that only allows members to play, and at a significant cost. Entrance fees range between $2,475 and $8,250 and annual subscriptions cost $1,264 to $4,339.
The course is ranked as one of Australia’s best and its patron is the South Australian governor, Hieu Van Le. Financial documents reveal $5.3m revenue in 2019 and an operating surplus of $323,000.
The club’s general manger, Andrew Gay, said the money saved on the solar panels would be used to help boost community participation.
“The funds we saved on this installation are being directed towards our Junior and female development programs,” he said. “These programs are open to the community if they wish to learn how to play the game.”
“Like all other clubs we completed the lengthy application process outlining all the required items.”
The club is located in the seat of Hindmarsh, which Labor’s Mark Butler retained at last year’s election.
Both the golf clubs are registered not-for-profits, making them eligible for the grants.
The audit found that McKenzie’s office ran a “parallel assessment” to that undertaken by Sports Australia, leading to hundreds of projects that were deemed to be more meritorious missing out in favour of those in Coalition “target seats”.
Morrison has said the federal government will “clarify” legal issues raised in the audit questioning whether McKenzie had the legal authority to pay out the $100m in grants.
Josh Wilson, the Labor MP for the seat of Fremantle where the Fremantle Tennis Club unsuccessfully applied for one of the grants, said the audit had found the “game was fixed” from the start.
“I wish every sporting club well, but if we have a situation where decisions are being made through some kind of political patronage or overwhelmingly guided by partisan political considerations, then that is a kick in the guts to the hundreds of clubs Australia-wide that put dozens of hours into … what they would expect to be a fair process.”