Bridget McKenzie’s office approved nine sport grants in key seats that it asked Sport Australia to assess after applications closed, despite a warning from the agency that it was “not appropriate” to accept or fund the projects.
The direct request from McKenzie’s office to Sport Australia under the controversial sport rorts affair asked it to consider nine new applications that had either been substantially amended or were new on March 20 – less than two months before the May election.
Four of the applications that came directly from the minister’s office came from proponents who had not submitted an application when the grants were open publicly in August and September 2018.
In response to the request from McKenzie’s office, Sport Australia warned that it was unfair for the applications to be considered, given it had refused similar requests from other MPs and sporting clubs after applications closed on 14 September 2018.
“No new applications have been accepted since this time and this has been communicated publicly – to the many MPs, sporting clubs and other organisations and individuals who have written expressly for the purpose of requesting the opportunity to apply,” a letter from Sport Australia to the minister’s office on March 22 said.
“Therefore it is not appropriate to invite or accept new applications at this time.”
“Given the number of existing applications for funding that have already been assessed and ranked regarding their ability to meet program guidelines, Sport Australia will refer to this list and put forward projects for ministerial approval via a formal briefing process.”
As well as expressing its concerns directly to McKenzie’s office, Sport Australia also assessed the projects put forward by the minister and found eight of the nine did not demonstrate “high merit” across the program’s criteria of community participation and community need.
Despite this, all nine projects were approved.
The auditor general also examined the nine projects in his scathing report of the program, finding that McKenzie had put forward the projects by relying on a clause within the project guidelines that allowed it to consider other projects after the assessment process had completed in the event of “emerging issues”.
But the audit found that while one project had been highly rated, an assessment by Sport Australia did not identify “how these applications reflected ‘emerging issues’ or addressed priorities that had not been met”.
It also criticised the opportunity extended to McKenzie’s office to amend existing applications or submit new applications, given it “was not advertised or otherwise made available more broadly”.
“Sport Australia was not involved in the process through which candidates were identified and invited to submit new or amended applications … Rather, this process was undertaken within the minister’s office.”
According to the auditor general, seven of the nine projects that were approved outside of the normal process were located in a Coalition electorate, while two were in “targeted” electorates – one held by Labor and one held by an independent.
“While higher scored applications from the competitive process undertaken in August to September 2018 remained available for approval, each of these new or resubmitted applications were approved for funding as part of the third round,” the audit said.
The revelation comes as Nationals leader Michael McCormack digs in behind McKenzie, saying she has done an “outstanding” job as minister and declaring she had declared her interests and followed a process “as she was required to do”.
“She is getting out there, making sure that regional communities are represented, making sure that the interests of regional people come first and foremost,” McCormack said on Friday.
The government is facing growing pressure over McKenzie’s handling of the program after an auditor general report found she prioritised grants in marginal and target seats while ignoring a merit-based assessment process undertaken by Sport Australia.
Prime minister Scott Morrison has referred McKenzie’s conduct to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, with secretary Philip Gaetjens to examine whether she breached ministerial standards.
Gaetjens, who is also Morrison’s former chief of staff, has also been asked to look at whether McKenzie failed to disclose a conflict of interest by not declaring her membership in a Wangaratta shooting club, which received a $36,000 grant.
On Thursday, Morrison said that he would take “whatever action is necessary” in response to Gaetjens’ findings, fuelling speculation that she may be dumped from the ministry.