A rugby union club in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs won a $500,000 grant for new female change rooms under the Coalition’s sports grant program despite not fielding a women’s team since 2018 when it was embroiled in a sexism controversy.
The club, located in the Coalition-held marginal seat of Sturt, was awarded the maximum available grant under the scandal-ridden $100m community sport infrastructure fund just weeks before the 19 May election.
Announcing its success in securing the grant, the club thanked the offices of the then Liberal MP Christopher Pyne and the state Liberal deputy leader Vicki Chapman, who is also a club sponsor.
It was one of a number of grants that the Nationals minister Bridget McKenzie directed to government-held marginal seats under the program, which the auditor general found prioritised funding in Coalition marginal and target seats while ignoring a merit-based assessment process undertaken by Sport Australia.
Sturt was held by the Coalition on a 5.8% margin, and was successfully retained for the Liberal party at the May election by Pyne’s protege, James Stevens.
Guardian Australia has been contacted by concerned former members of the club who say the Old Collegians Rugby Union Club does not need new female change rooms if it does not have a women’s team, expressing anger at the lucrative grant despite an alleged culture of mistreatment and misogyny that led to the entire female team quitting in 2018.
Rugby SA confirmed that Old Collegians last fielded a women’s team in the state competition in 2018 when they were successful in securing the premiership.
According to the club website it is hoping to “reinvigorate” the women’s team ahead of the 2020 season, but it has not yet registered a women’s team for the 2020 competition.
Sport Australia told Guardian Australia that the grant, awarded in the third round of the program, would support the club to “build new amenities and upgrade existing facilities at Linden Park”.
“The project includes the construction of female change rooms and facilities, wheelchair accessible toilets and a multi-purpose space to support broader community sporting activities.”
The auditor general report found that 73% of grants awarded in the third round had not been recommended by Sport Australia based on a merit-assessment process that considered community need and increased participation.
It is not known if the rugby club’s grant was one of those recommended by Sport Australia.
According to the club’s website, the grant will be used for a “refurbishment of our club rooms and adding additional changing rooms”.
Guardian Australia has obtained correspondence from 2018 that shows the women’s team and the club committee clashed in 2018 over alleged sexist behaviour towards the senior female players that ultimately led to the entire team leaving. The team has since moved to the Adelaide University Rugby Union Club.
Those close to the club say the exodus included as many as 30 active supporters along with about 20 female players.
The correspondence shows that the women’s team raised concern about unequal treatment at the club, saying many of the female players did not feel respected.
“Many of the girls now think the Committee, or at least some of you, don’t like or respect us, and don’t see us as equals to the men’s teams (or at least don’t intend to treat us the same way), aren’t proud of us, or didn’t think we could/would win. They were startled that members of the committee would be so rude and unpleasant to them,” an email from one of the players to the club’s committee says.
One of the key events that led to the exodus was the club banning the women from climbing the club rafters after they won the 2018 premiership – a tradition that had always been allowed for the male players.
A sexual harassment complaint was also made to the club about the treatment of one female player by a male coach, with correspondence showing the incident was investigated.
The Old Collegians club declined Guardian Australia’s request for an interview, and did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The fresh revelations come as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, comes under growing pressure over the government’s handling of the community sport infrastructure program and as Labor steps up calls for McKenzie, who was sport minister at the time, to resign.
On Thursday, Morrison said he would take “whatever action was necessary” once his department determined whether McKenzie had breached ministerial guidelines in her handling of the sports slush fund and in failing to publicly disclose membership of a shooting club that received a $36,000 grant.
Morrison has tasked the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens, to review McKenzie’s conduct.
“I’ll let him do his job and then I will look at that advice and take whatever action is necessary,” Morrison said.
Earlier, McKenzie dismissed suggestions she was stepping down.
“The minister is not resigning. She is actively engaging in the process and is confident there has not been a breach in ministerial standards,” a statement from her office said.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said McKenzie needed to resign or be sacked, accusing the government of using the grant program as “party political funds”.
“The fact is that those oversized cheques represent the illustrated guide to buying your way into power,” Albanese said.
“This abuse is rank. It stinks more than a bucket of prawn heads that you have left out on a hot day like today. The stench goes all the way up to the government,” he said.
The shadow sports minister, Don Farrell, has also written to Gaetjens asking him to investigate “any role played by the prime minister, his office, and the Liberal Party secretariat in influencing spending decisions”.