Scott Morrison has been drawn further into the sports grants controversy after it was revealed his office exchanged 136 emails with former sports minister Bridget McKenzie’s office about the program and one of the clubs in his electorate received funding despite being ineligible.
On Tuesday Labor pressed the issue on multiple fronts, as clubs that missed out came forward to complain to a Senate inquiry, and a Senate order for production of documents revealed Morrison attended an event at the Sans Souci Football Club, which was given $50,000 despite its project nearly having been completed.
Morrison has maintained that his involvement in the $100m community sport infrastructure was limited to his office passing on representations from MPs to McKenzie’s office.
But in an answer to the Senate inquiry, the Australian National Audit Office revealed that between 17 October 2018 and 11 April 2019 McKenzie and Morrison’s office exchanged 136 emails about the program.
The documents also reveal McKenzie wrote back to the prime minister on 10 April, 2019 – the day before the election was called – with the list of projects she proposed to fund, summarised by state, political party and electorate. On 11 April, the day the election was called, the minister sent the final list to Sport Australia.
Documents produced to the Senate reveal that Morrison’s office was informed before he attended an event at the Sans Souci Football Club on 11 July that “it is worth noting that the club initially missed out on the first two rounds of funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure grant program”.
“The club was subsequently funded in round three,” it said. “During the intervening period, the club has fundraised and the project is almost completed.”
A spokesman for the prime minister said the project was “approved for funding by the then minister for sport based on its assessed eligibility by Sport Australia”.
“It was the responsibility of the applicants and Sport Australia to have ensured all projects met the eligibility criteria,” he said.
Earlier in February, the ANAO told the Senate inquiry that 43% of projects funded were not eligible, mostly because they had started or completed work by the time a funding agreement was signed.
In question time, Anthony Albanese quoted evidence from ANAO officials at a 13 February Senate inquiry hearing that Morrison’s office had made both indirect and direct representations such as “these are the ones we think should be included in the list of approved projects”.
Morrison replied: “Neither I nor my office were decision-makers in the process that governs the sports grants program, the decision-maker, as has been identified through the audit office, was the sports minister [McKenzie].”
Morrison argued government MPs knew what was best for their communities – including the member for Lindsay, Melissa McIntosh, even though she was not an MP when funding decisions were made before the 2019 election.
“The people of Lindsay agree with me,” Morrison said. “Because they elected the member for Lindsay because the member for Lindsay knows what’s best for her community.”
Labor leapt on the suggestion that Liberal candidates – not just MPs – had influenced allocation of funding.
In a scathing report the Australian National Audit Office found the program was skewed towards marginal or Coalition target seats. McKenzie was later forced to resign over a conflict of interest related to the program.
In submissions to the Senate inquiry, the top-scoring Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby has said it is “incredibly disappointed” with the politicisation of the program, while the North Shore Country Club has threatened to join possible legal action.
Plaintiff law firms Slater and Gordon and Maurice Blackburn have both proposed class actions or tests cases, citing concerns the grants may be unconstitutional and the ANAO finding that it was “not evident” what McKenzie’s authority was to give grants.
Morrison has suggested clubs that missed out could be funded in a further round of the program but has not made a concrete commitment.
The North Shore Country Club, which provides tennis facilities in Kallaroo, Western Australia, submitted that it was unable to fund its project to improve accessibility and female facilities, while other clubs received funding despite not being eligible when agreements were signed, for projects that would have been built anyway.
“For volunteers at clubs throughout Australia, who worked hard to submit applications that on merit should have received awards, this outcome is extremely disappointing and needs to be addressed,” it submitted.
“It is evident that the award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice.”
“The government needs to make additional funding available to ensure that grants are made to all organisations that would have been successful based on Sport Australia merit scores but were later rejected by the sports minister.
“We are aware of a possible class action and based on the strength of our application, and Sport Australia evaluation we have been advised that we will present a very strong case for award.
“It is our hope that the government addresses these wrongdoings and we do not have to consider this course of action.”
The Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby club, which top-scored with 98 out of 100 in Sports Australia’s assessment, submitted there had been “no explanation of why funds were awarded to applicants with considerably lower gradings on applications, and for ten times the amount requested by our club”.
“We are left with no doubt that the action of denying our club the funds we were assessed as deserving was indeed discriminatory and politically motivated,” it said.
The Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby club demanded that all clubs that scored above the designated cut-off of 74 – above which the ANAO said clubs would have been funded but for ministerial intervention – “should be retrospectively funded in full via the release of additional funds”.
The Kyneton District Soccer Club, which scored 87 out of 100, called on the government to “fund all the projects that should have been funded but missed out” .
The constitutional expert Anne Twomey submitted that program guidelines were invalid because they nominated McKenzie “the final approver of grants” and reiterated her view that “most of the funding given to projects under the scheme was unlawful because there was no constitutional head of power to support it”.
The Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies at Melbourne University agreed that there was “no plausible head of legislative power to support most and, perhaps, all [the grants]”.
The health department submitted that although it helped develop the program guidelines “the department did not seek legal advice” about the program, which it said was the responsibility of Sport Australia.
Sport Australia submitted that it had accepted the three recommendations of the ANAO to manage the expected level of demand for programs, improve conflict of interest procedures and assessment records. It did not comment on what the legal authority was for McKenzie to make grants.
The Senate select committee on sports grants is due to hear from McKenzie and the secretary of the department of the prime minister and cabinet, Phil Gaetjens.
Gaetjens has already made a submission to the committeedefending McKenzie by claiming he could not find evidence it was “unduly influenced by reference to marginal or targeted electorates”.