Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie approved sports grants projects in colleagues’ electorates that were lodged well after the deadline and announced just weeks before the federal election.
- Coalition MPs encouraged sports clubs to make or amend late sports grants applications
- At least two of the late approvals were not on a list of 2,000 reviewed by Sport Australia
- The funded projects featured prominently during last year’s federal election campaign
The ABC has confirmed several projects that received funding in a pre-election extension of the scandal-plagued $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program hadn’t even applied when applications closed in September 2018.
And a handful of other projects only secured funding after the sporting clubs were encouraged by their local Coalition MP to resubmit an amended application.
All nine of the new or resubmitted projects were in Coalition seats or seats being targeted by the Nationals or Liberal Party.
None of the projects were approved by the Sport Australia board, as required under the guidelines, according to the auditor-general.
The new revelations help explain why Sport Australia bitterly complained about their late inclusion in the grants program which, as the ABC exclusively reported earlier this week, sparked complaints from the agency that its independence was being compromised.
In his scathing report into the sports grants scheme, auditor-general Grant Hehir reserved his harshest criticism for the way some projects got funding outside the guidelines.
He cited Sport Australia’s concerns that it was “not appropriate to invite or accept new applications at this time”.
The program guidelines stated “emerging issues” could be considered in relation to late applications. But the Minister’s office did not identify these issues, even after Sport Australia requested reasons from the Minister’s office.
The ABC can reveal many of these late applications were for projects in electorates either held or being hotly contested by the Nationals and formed part of Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie’s pre-election blitz.
Queensland marginal seat a late grant winner
In the ultra-marginal Queensland seat of Capricornia, held by Nationals MP Michelle Landry, $146,200 was granted to Yeppoon Swans AFL Club.
Senator McKenzie was at the club’s home ground Swan Park to announce the funding on May 1, just 17 days before the election.
Club president Peter Watkins said the funding was for lights, which allows 100 kids to play on Friday nights without having to bring in temporary lighting.
“We’re forever grateful of what we’ve got,” he said.
The club was speaking to Ms Landry — who hails from Yeppoon — in the period it lodged the application.
A spokesperson for Ms Landry said: “Michelle encourages community and sporting organisations to apply to a range of programs which offer Government assistance.”
Yeppoon Swans Facebook post
Six days after her Yeppoon trip, Senator McKenzie, who is facing calls to resign or be sacked over her administration of the sports grants program, was alongside another fellow National, Damian Drum, to announce $350,000 towards an extension to the Lake Nagambie boardwalk in his Victorian electorate of Nicholls.
Strathbogie Shire Council told the ABC it had submitted an application for the grant on March 15, 2019, after being encouraged to do so by Mr Drum.
“Council was officially advised by Sport Australia that it had been successful on 17 June 2019,” a council spokeswoman said, which was more than a month after Mr Drum announced the funding.
Neither the Yeppoon nor the Lake Nagambie projects appear in a spreadsheet, obtained by the ABC from December 2018, which shows the 2,000 funding applications assessed by Sport Australia between August and September that year.
Nor does the Westbury Bowling Club, in the Tasmanian seat of Lyons, which received $235,000 for a synthetic green and an upgrade for the clubhouse.
Then-Tasmanian Nationals senator Steve Martin announced the funding alongside the party’s Lyons candidate, Deanna Hutchinson, on April 30 last year.
“This is a valued community asset. I took the issue to Canberra and brought Sports Minister and Deputy Nationals leader [Senator McKenzie] to Westbury to visit the club,” he said at the time.
“It is great that as a consequence, she has released the funding for this project.”
The Coalition had high hopes of pinching Lyons from the Labor Party until Liberal candidate Jessica Whelan’s chances imploded after Islamophobic Facebook posts emerged a few days later.
Victorian marginal seat receives late grant
Another late inclusion under the grants program was a maximum $500,000 to the North Wangaratta Football Netball Club in the seat of Indi, announced on May 6 by Nationals candidate Mark Byatt alongside Nationals Cabinet minister David Littleproud.
The club had previously been the subject of a funding application under the scheme for a smaller amount ($174,500), but had twice missed out.
Indi was a target seat for the Liberals and Nationals after independent MP Cath McGowan retired, but the seat was won by another independent, Helen Haines.
The Pennant Hills AFL Club was another late inclusion in the scheme. It is in the Sydney electorate of Berowra and received a maximum $500,000. Sitting Liberal MP Julian Leeser announced the grant on May 12, just six days before the 2019 election.
Mr Leeser was unavailable but the ABC was told the application was late because of the difficulty coordinating five codes that use shared facilities.
West Australian Rick Wilson was another Liberal MP able to announce sports grants funding in his electorate during the election campaign.
The Shire of Coolgardie received $287,823 towards the upgrade of the Kambalda pool in the seat of O’Connor.
This project had been originally rejected for funding, but Mr Wilson told ABC Goldfields radio this week that he had advised the shire to revise down its funding request.
A colour-coded spreadsheet, prepared in Senator McKenzie’s office in December 2018 and obtained by the ABC, shows the shire had originally applied for the maximum amount possible, $500,000, towards the $3.5 million project. It was given a high merit rating of 92 out of 100.
Liberal MP says he encouraged club to amend application
“I suggested to the Coolgardie Shire that they resubmit their application asking for a lower amount of money, which they did — $287,000 — and I’m very pleased and very proud that that was funded,” Mr Wilson told the ABC this week.
“I think the Minister made a very sound judgement in deciding that it would be better to fund the smaller projects and spread the money and the benefit more widely.”
It appears to be a similar story for another project in O’Connor. The Katanning Country Club originally applied for $479,339 to go towards its $2 million redevelopment. This project was given a 71 per cent merit score by Sport Australia, according to the leaked spreadsheet prepared inside Senator McKenzie’s office.
The project eventually received a $248,000 grant under the program. Senator McKenzie visited the club last year and on May 17, the day before the federal election, WA Nationals state MP Peter Rundle revealed the grant on Facebook.
“It was great to be joined recently at the Katanning Tennis Club by federal Nationals deputy leader and Minister for Sport Senator Bridget McKenzie along with John Hassell, Nationals WA candidate for O’Connor, and Big Nick Fardell — Senate candidate,” Mr Rundle wrote.
Minister defends handling of scheme
The auditor-general found that sports grants approved in the third pre-election period “had significantly less assessed merit overall than was the case for the applications funded in the first two rounds”.
He found that Senator McKenzie’s office conducted a “parallel assessment” of grant applications separate to Sport Australia’s process which judged applications against published assessment criteria.
“The Minister’s office [used] other considerations,” the auditor-general’s report said.
He found that if merit alone had been the criteria for successful grants, they would have scored at least 74 per cent on Sport Australia’s criteria.
In the third round of the sports grant program, projects approved for funding by Senator McKenzie had scores ranging between 39 and 95, whereas Sport Australia’s list had projects ranging between 62 and 98.
“Sport Australia’s advice to the [Australian National Audit Office] in October 2019 was that the Sport Australia CEO and board were not aware of the process by which projects were selected for funding in the second round,” the auditor-general’s report states.
Senator McKenzie has defended her administration of the scheme, saying all projects were eligible for funding and that the grants process allowed ministerial discretion to make final funding decisions.