The newly elected Queensland Liberal MP Terry Young linked a sports grant announcement by the prime minister on the final day of the election campaign to the party’s “great strategising” that led to his victory.
Young, who was contesting the Labor-held marginal seat of Longman, praised Morrison and the party’s federal campaign director, Andrew Hirst, in his first speech to parliament this year, and referred to Scott Morrison’s visit to a Caboolture sports club on the eve of the election where he announced a $500,000 grant.
“My thanks go to our campaign team led by Andrew Hirst and Lincoln Folo for their great strategising and to the prime minister for making time in his busy schedule to drop into the Caboolture Soccer Club for a visit and charm some of the locals,” Young said.
“To say you cannot win an election by yourself would be the greatest understatement of all time.”
The visit on 16 May 2019 was to the Caboolture Sports Club, which is an umbrella organisation that incorporates six different sports groups. The visit was made to the soccer club, while according to Sport Australia the grant was awarded to the umbrella organisation – Caboolture Sports Club Inc – for new cricket facilities.
Longman was one of the Labor party’s most marginal seats, held by Susan Lamb on a 0.8% margin.
Morrison has repeatedly denied that the controversial sports grants program was used by the Coalition to pork-barrel marginal and targeted seats, despite the findings of the auditor general who revealed that the then sport minister Bridget McKenzie selected projects from a list colour-coded by which party held the electorate in which they were located.
But the Nationals MP Damien Drum conceded on Monday the program was deployed “to maximise” the Coalition’s performance at the last federal election.
In comments defending the performance of McKenzie, who has resigned her frontbench position following the sports grants controversy, Drum said of the program: “It might have been used, you may be right, it may have been used not so much marginal seats but trying to maximise the performance at the last election.”
Drum argued McKenzie had been correct to allocate the grants rather than follow the recommendations of Sport Australia. “We want a government that has ministers that lead their departments. We don’t want to have a government where a department, faceless bureaucrats, lead the ministers.”
He said politicians should make decisions about funding allocations “because a bureaucrat doesn’t understand the communities”.
“A bureaucrat doesn’t understand one particular project may have an enormous amount of community in-kind support, a minister who has been there on site would understand that.
“I don’t think bias in government spending is anything new.”
Young did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment, while a spokesman for the Liberal party said Hirst had no role in deciding where grants were awarded.
“The Liberal party federal secretariat was not involved in any decisions relating to the Community Sports Infrastructure program.”
Despite attempting to draw a line over the controversy with McKenzie’s departure from the frontbench, the Morrison government remains under pressure because of the sports grants controversy.
Labor will move on Wednesday to establish a select committee to examine the process surrounding the allocation of grants, with crossbench support.
Legal experts, including Anne Twomey, have raised doubts about McKenzie’s legal authority to administer the grants program.
One of the country’s leading constitutional experts, Twomey said on Monday that while ministers had discretion to direct their departments, this did not apply to corporate entities such as Sport Australia.
“If we were being charitable to Senator McKenzie (and every other minister spouting about ministerial discretion) we could say that she was confused and really thought the same rules applied to making these sporting grants as would normally apply in relation to a departmental grant program,” Twomey wrote for the ABC.
“Perhaps somehow she was not informed that she had only limited legal powers in relation to the Sport Australia, despite it pointing this out. But even if this was so, she must still have known and believed she was subject to … constraints.”
The Liberal trade minister, Simon Birmingham, told ABC’s 7.30 program on Monday that ministers were not there to “rubber stamp” recommendations made by the department, but said he had never chosen projects from a spreadsheet colour-coded by electorate.
Pressed if McKenzie had done anything wrong, Birmingham noted that she had resigned “as a result” of the analysis of the auditor general, but more specifically because of her lack of compliance with the ministerial code of conduct.
“Clearly a mistake was made. Clearly it was an error and wrong in terms of that mistake. That’s why she has resigned.”