More than $1m in sport grants was handed to nine clubs that boast senior Coalition MPs as members or patrons, including one undisclosed by Bridget McKenzie, three linked to Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt, one tied to treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg, and two associated with senator Sarah Henderson.
The controversial $100m grant program gave money to a gun club joined by the former sports minister, a tennis club where Frydenberg is an honorary member, an Australian rules football club where Wyatt is the “No 1 ticket holder”, and Henderson’s football and netball club, which made personal representations for the funding to prime minister Scott Morrison.
The memberships are listed in MPs’ register of interests as affiliations where “a conflict of interest with a member’s public duties could foreseeably arise or be seen to arise” – with the exception of the Wangaratta Clay Target Club which received $35,980 but was not listed on McKenzie’s register of interests.
The club received funding to install new toilets and amenities. It boasted McKenzie had “signed up to our club as a full fee-paying member” when she visited the club on 25 January 2019 to announce funding alongside Nationals candidate Mark Byatt who was contesting the independent-held seat of Indi.
A spokeswoman for McKenzie told The Age that since the membership was a “gift” in January 2019 and valued at less than $300 a declaration to the Senate was “unnecessary”.
Most other MPs told Guardian Australia they did no more than alert clubs in their area to the grants on offer, although Henderson wrote a letter of support in favour of one successful club.
The revelation follows a week of bad press about the community sports infrastructure grant program, sparked by a scathing auditor-general’s report which found the program conducted under McKenzie, the former sports minister, skewed the grants towards marginal seats.
Wyatt was the patron of three clubs that received funding: Kalamunda Districts Rugby Union Club ($180,000); Swan Districts Football Club ($199,616); and the Guildford & Kalamunda Districts Swimming Club ($24,195).
Video shows Wyatt handing over a giant $180,000 cheque for new women’s changing rooms to the Kalamunda Districts Rugby Union Club on May 5, just two weeks before the federal election. The club is in his marginal electorate of Hasluck in Western Australia.
The two grants to the Swan Districts Football Club – for $31,516 and $168,100 – paid for a new women’s changeroom and to upgrade the sound system at its home ground.
Wyatt has not only declared himself a patron of the club, but told parliament he was the club’s “no. 1 ticket holder”.
The club is located in the neighbouring electorate of Perth, also a marginal seat, which was retained by Labor’s Patrick Gorman, who is also a supporter.
Chief executive Jeff Dennis said he did not see any conflict of interest.
“We firmly believe both grants were successful based on the merit of the application,” Dennis told the Guardian.
“We don’t see any conflict of interest with either Ken Wyatt or Patrick Gorman. Both support the club because we deliver many broad and deep community outreach strategies.”
In January 2019 Wyatt posted photos to social media handing a large-sized $24,000 cheque to the Guildford & Kalamunda Districts Swimming Club to purchase new pool covers.
Henderson declared that for part of 2019 she was a member of the Barwon Heads Football and Netball Club and a sponsor of the Grovedale Tigers Football and Netball Club, both of which have now lapsed. Both are in Henderson’s former marginal seat of Corangamite.
According to Sports Australia Barwon Heads got $370,000 in the first round of the program for new lighting at its home ground and Grovedale got $256,000 in the third round.
The Barwon Heads grant was awarded after prime minister Scott Morrison, Henderson, and the club’s president Tim Goddard were pictured together in October 2018. The club made personal representations to Morrison and Henderson about the need for new lighting and other facility upgrades, according to its Facebook page.
Henderson told Guardian Australia she had backed clubs and organisations “without fear or favour”.
“Of the nine Corangamite clubs and one Corio club for which I was asked to, and provided, a letter of support, only two were successful: Barwon Heads Football and Netball Club in Corangamite ($370,000) and Geelong Soccer and Sports Club in Corio ($500,000),” she said.
“Like many MPs, I sponsored many major sporting clubs across my electorate.
“Of five applicant clubs in Corangamite which I sponsored, two were successful and three were unsuccessful in obtaining funding.”
Liberal MP Julian Leeser disclosed that he is a patron of the Eastwood-Thornleigh District Tennis Association, which received $184,000 in the second round.
Liberal MP Jason Falinski declared he is a patron of the Bayview Golf Club, which got $140,372 in the third round of the program.
In July Frydenberg declared to parliament that he is an honorary member of the Grace Park Tennis Club, part of the Grace Park Hawthorn Club which received $25,000 in the third round of the program. Frydenberg also held his official function for the 2019 election night at the club.
Frydenberg, Falinski and Leeser said their offices had sent general alerts to sports clubs in their electorates about the grant program but clubs applied independently.
Frydenberg said “local sports clubs were notified of the program but no representations were made [on their behalf]”.
Falinski said he “made no personal representations for grants – I don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to Bridget McKenzie [about the program]”.
“The first I knew about the [Bayview Golf Club] application is when I was told they had been successful.”
A spokeswoman for Leeser said in December 2018 McKenzie visited his electorate to discuss mobile phone reception and Leeser took her to see a number of sports clubs including the Eastwood-Thornleigh District Tennis Association and some others who had applied for a grant.
The auditor general’s report found that 70% of projects approved by McKenzie in the second round in March 2019 were not recommended by Sport Australia, rising to 73% in the third round in April 2019 after an extra $40m was tipped into the program.
Morrison, McKenzie and Frydenberg have all defended the program, arguing all projects were eligible for grants and no rules were broken in the allocation of funding.
Nevertheless, the attorney general is now reviewing legal issues that could render the grants invalid, including the auditor general’s finding that McKenzie lacked authority to approve grants and the program may be unconstitutional.
Morrison has suggested that after cabinet approved the program his office’s role was limited to relaying on representations made by his MPs, with McKenzie making the final decision on grants.
Guardian Australia contacted Wyatt for comment.