The Prime Minister has sought to distance his office from a scandal-plagued sports grants program threatening the political future of a senior minister.
- Scott Morrison insists his office only passed on representations to Bridget McKenzie’s office
- He insisted the Government had followed the rules in allocating $100m in sports grants
- The Prime Minister suggested possible new funding for projects that missed out
But Scott Morrison has refused to outline why, in March 2019, just weeks before calling a federal election, Cabinet approved more than $40 million in extra funding for the program.
A scathing auditor-general report criticised the way then-sports minister Bridget McKenzie ignored the advice of Sport Australia and funnelled money into projects in marginal electorates and those the Coalition was targeting in the lead-up to the 2019 election.
“All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us,” Mr Morrison said.
The Prime Minister was speaking at the National Press Club, delivering an address ahead of the Parliament resuming next week, where he flagged the possibility of more Government funding for unsuccessful clubs.
Politicians are set to return to Canberra as the Government defends revelations that Sport Australia complained political intervention had risked the agency’s independence ahead of the election.
The Government funded $100 million in projects from its Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program in the months leading up to May’s federal poll.
The projects were funded over three rounds, in the last of which the auditor found 73 per cent of projects given funding were not recommended by Sport Australia.
Mr Morrison faced questions about a March Cabinet decision in which a further $42.5 million was allocated to the program.
The guidelines dictated the money could only go to projects that had not been started. The March decision meant the Government would have only had mere weeks to distribute the money before going into the caretaker period for the election.
The Prime Minister failed to answer that question and instead said he had referred the legality of the program to the Attorney-General for review.
Mr Morrison is awaiting a separate review from the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which he ordered following revelations a grant went to a Victorian gun club Senator McKenzie is a member of.
Senator McKenzie has faced calls from the Opposition to resign for her handling of the program.
“The auditor-general did not find there were any ineligible projects that were funded under this scheme and nor did he say rules had been broken,” Mr Morrison said.
“There was a ministerial authority to make decisions in this matter and that’s what was exercised.
“Now, observations and commentary have been provided about how that was exercised and that’s a matter that’s under review.”
Clubs that Sport Australia highly rated, only for the minister to reject their bids for funding, have demanded answers from the top levels of the Government.
“There are many, many more worthy projects in this area, I agree with that,” Mr Morrison told the National Press Club.
“I will work with the Treasurer to see how we can better support even more projects in the future.”
Prime Minister flags bushfire, energy policies
Mr Morrison used his speech to flag changes to the Government’s energy policies.
He said he was pursuing agreements with individual states and territories, aimed at keeping prices down while offering a reliable source.
The policy, the details of which have not been announced, echo parts of the national energy grid, a former Coalition commitment that led to Malcolm Turnbull’s demise as prime minister.
“One of the major vehicles for driving this agenda forward will be bilateral agreements on energy and emissions reductions with each state and territory and that will begin with New South Wales and I’ll have more to say about that soon,” Mr Morrison said.
“But these agreements will focus on keeping energy prices affordable, improving the reliability of the electricity grid and driving down emissions while we do so.”
The Prime Minister also said the summer’s bushfire crisis had proven the need for greater flexibility in calling out the Defence Force to assist in responding to emergencies.
Earlier this month, the Federal Government deployed ADF personnel to fire-ravaged communities in a bid to help with evacuations and recovery efforts.
A compulsory call-out of reservists was also put into place.
Mr Morrison said there needed to be a discussion about whether that process was too slow and argued changes are needed to make it easier for the Federal Government to deploy personnel at home.