Former Cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie has broken her silence about the sports grants scandal that ended her frontbench career, defending her actions while conceding more could have been done to ensure public trust in a scandal-plagued pre-election program.
- Senator McKenzie says she will not apologise for using her ministerial discretion
- As sports minister she is accused of awarding grants in marginal seats for political advantage
- The details come from a 6,000-word submission to a Senate inquiry examining the scandal
In a 20-page submission to a Senate inquiry, the former sports minister insisted she had taken responsibility for her actions, having quit the frontbench earlier this year.
But the now-backbencher defended her ministerial intervention in the program.
“To do so was my prerogative, but more importantly, it was my responsibility.”
Scandals surrounding the program dogged the Government for weeks, amid revelations of colour-coded spread sheets and accusations that deserving clubs missed out in favour of those in electorates the Coalition wanted to win.
Senator McKenzie became the agriculture minister after May 2019’s shock Coalition victory, becoming the first woman to hold the portfolio.
But she quit as Nationals deputy leader and resigned her ministry in February in the wake of revelations about the $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Grants program.
She did so after an investigation by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet found she breached ministerial standards by failing to disclose her membership of a gun club that received almost $36,000 from the grants program.
A separate investigation by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) found the Government had allocated grants with bias towards marginal and target seats the Coalition hoped to win at last year’s federal election.
But Senator McKenzie denied that, arguing the finding was based on a memo she had never seen.
“There has been extensive media commentary about use of the terms ‘marginal’ and ‘targeted’ electorates within my ministerial office, highlighted in the ANAO report,” Senator McKenzie said in her submission.
“I am advised that these terms were obtained from a memo with an attached spreadsheet, emailed by a former ministerial adviser to themself.
“It is asserted throughout the ANAO report, apparently based on this singular email, that there was a marginal seat strategy conducted within my office that influenced the success of grant applications.
“The ANAO argues that this former adviser’s memo underpinned the methodology of my office.
Senator McKenzie insists she has neither seen nor received the memo.
‘Pork barrelling on steroids’
Labor has dubbed the pre-election program “pork barrelling on steroids” and launched a Senate inquiry into the Government’s handling of it.
Senator McKenzie’s submission to that committee comes after the commencement of public-hearings, which have since been delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Government has also faced criticism for a separate $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream (FFWSS) program. Funding in that program, which lacked guidelines, was even more heavily skewed towards Coalition-held marginal seats than the controversial sports grants program it was meant to complement.
But Senator McKenzie makes no comment in her submission about the $150 million program, because she was not responsible for it.
More than 2,000 clubs applied for funding under the program Senator McKenzie oversaw.
Sport Australia assessed those applications and found 1,943 were eligible for funding.
With the program “heavily over-subscribed”, Senator McKenzie said she lobbied the Prime Minister and the Government subsequently offered three rounds of funding.
The National Audit Office report accused Senator McKenzie’s office of ignoring merit-based assessments made by the government agency.
“My objective when exercising my ministerial authority was to see more communities benefit, across a wide range of sports and local clubs, to ensure the funding resulted in a fairer overall outcome, with more clubs funded across more regions than would otherwise have been the case.
“Whilst not my purpose, analysis shows more funding went to Labor-held electorates than Sport Australia had recommended. Only 26 per cent of Sport Australia’s recommendations were in Labor-held electorates. I increased this to 35 per cent.”
Senator McKenzie said Prime Minister and Cabinet analysis suggested 30 electorates would have missed out on any funding without her intervention.
Constitutional law experts have questioned the legality of ministerial intervention in the program.
But Senator McKenzie said that wasn’t raised with her, her office, the Department of Health or Sport Australia when the program’s guidelines were created.
She said it expected the public service would have resolved any potential issues prior to her finalising the funding.
McKenzie denies conflict of interest
Irrespective of the program’s management, Senator McKenzie ultimately lost her job because she failed to disclose a gifted gun club membership worth $30.
“I personally failed to declare two memberships to the Prime Minister in a timely manner and hence breached his ministerial standards,” she said.
“I took the appropriate action of ministerial responsibility under the Westminster system of accountability and resigned.”
But Senator McKenzie rejects she ever faced a conflict of interest in awarding the grant to her club.
“In effect, I was a member for approximately five days between visiting the club and signing off on the final approval of round two grants, and I received no material or financial benefit then or subsequently,” she said.
Colour-coded spreadsheets ‘to check geographical spread’
A leaked version of the spreadsheet Senator McKenzie’s office used to assess grants found applicants had been colour-coded to reflect the political party that represented their electorate.
Senator McKenzie said her office asked Sport Australia to include electorates in the spreadsheet it used to track applications.
She admitted the colour-coding happened later in her office, but said it was to ensure there was a geographical spread in the allocation of funding.
Labor and the crossbench have repeatedly rejected this suggestion and insist it was done with partisan interests in mind.
Senator McKenzie’s statement fails to account for the Prime Ministerial office’s involvement in the program.
The federal Opposition has argued Scott Morrison and his staff were involved in the allocation process — a claim the Prime Minster has strenuously denied.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly said his office only made representations to the then minister’s office.
Senator McKenzie said she made the final decision on funding but doesn’t outline what involvement Mr Morrison’s office had.
Evidence to the Senate in March included accusations Senator McKenzie and Mr Morrison’s offices were still tweaking the final lists of projects in the hours after the election was called on April 11, 2019.
“Over the course of the program, there were ’emerging issues’ such as clubs receiving state government funds,” Senator McKenzie wrote in her submission.
“This meant five new projects were added and four existing project applications were amended — this was in keeping with the guidelines.
“My then chief-of-staff emailed Sport Australia in late March 2019 to outline the reasons for these project inclusions. These nine projects were approved in the round three decision brief signed by me on 4 April, 2020.”
She provides no further details for why changes were made after the election was called, but has previously said she made no changes after April 4, 2019 and believed “administrative errors” were to blame.
Senator McKenzie has declined requests for an interview and instead referred the ABC to her submission to the inquiry.