A colour-coded spreadsheet could seal Bridget McKenzie’s fate with reports she is becoming increasingly isolated over the deepening “sports rorts” scandal.
The Nationals deputy leader has been under fire for weeks over her handling of $100 million in sports funding after it emerged she ignored advice from Sport Australia in choosing worthy recipients and instead favoured projects in marginal areas.
The scandal kicked off after the Auditor-General released a report into Ms McKenzie’s administration of the Community Sports Infractructure program and found most of the grants went to marginal seats being targeted by the government last year.
The auditor-general found 73 per cent of the projects Ms McKenzie approved were not recommended by Sport Australia.
But the most damning aspects of the case have come to light this week after ABC obtained spreadsheets used by Ms McKenzie’s office to determine which clubs would receive grants, colour-coded by which political party held the seat.
It revealed that 94 of 223 projects deemed “successful” in the first round of funding would have fallen short of Sport Australia’s threshold.
The report also revealed that some of the projects that were deemed most worthy of funding missed out.
Sport Australia gave each project a ranking out of 100 based on three criteria: community participation (50 per cent), community need (25 per cent) and project design and delivery (25 per cent).
The cut-off for funding was reportedly a score of 74 out of 100.
Yet one of the biggest grants went to Pakenham Football Club in the marginal seat of La Trobe in Victoria. It got a $500,000 grant to build changing rooms for female footballers and netballers despite receiving a score of 50 out of 100.
Other more worthy projects missed out, including Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby whose application for $44,909 scored 98 of 100, and one from Goolwa District Pony Club for $40,000 to replace an ageing hut with a new shed and water tank that scored 82 out of 100.
Sport Australia also wrote to Ms McKenzie one month before the 2019 federal election was called, outlining its fears that it was being compromised by political interference and its independence was at risk.
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens is investigating the scheme to see if ministerial rules were broken. He’s also scrutinising a $36,000 grant Senator McKenzie awarded to a Victorian shooting club to which she belonged.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he didn’t have advice on whether Sport Australia expressed concern to the government about the scheme. He would wait until he received the report, he told reporters in Orange on Tuesday.
However, the government does seem to be acting on at least one aspect of the scandal, it seems to be intent on tracking down on whoever leaked the spreadsheet to the ABC. Minister for Sport and Aged Care Richard Colbeck said he had asked the secretary of the Department of Health, as well the chief executive officer of Sport Australia to provide him with assurance the documents did not come from them.
WHY WAS IT SO WRONG?
Ms McKenzie’s actions have stirred outrage with some even describing it as corruption.
However, Professor of public policy Adam Graycar of Adelaide University said it was unlikely that it would be considered corruption, which was hard to define.
Some legislation defines corruption as relating to committing a “criminal offence” which hasn’t happened in this case.
Corruption could also be seen as using a public office for personal gain but Prof Graycar said it was also unlikely Ms McKenzie personally benefited because “no one gave her a bag of money”.
Prof Graycar said it could be argued that the money helped the government get re-elected and maintain better salaries but said this was a “long bow”.
“Clearly though, what we do have, is a breach of integrity and a breach of trust,” he said.
“She was a custodian of public money and should have made a decision in the public interest.”
According to the Auditor-General’s report Ms McKenzie didn’t make the decisions in accordance with the process. Prof Graycar said it appeared she had made decisions in a way to benefit her political party or the government rather than the community.
“So the damage is not just to the sports clubs that didn’t get the money but it has also damaged the community’s trust that government is doing the right thing for the community.”
While Ms McKenzie has defended her actions saying she followed the rules, Prof Graycar said there had still been a breach of integrity and trust.
“When a politician tells you they’ve broken no rules, there’s something fishy,” he said.
He said former Labor MP Craig Thomson used the same line when trying to defend his credit card use that eventually saw him found guilty of fraud and theft.
“(Thomson) said his credit card was signed off,” Prof Graycar said. “There was never a rule you couldn’t use a credit card to buy a hooker, it wasn’t written down.”
COLLEAGUES REFUSING TO SUPPORT MCKENZIE
Senator McKenzie is becoming increasingly isolated over the deepening sports grants scandal, with party room colleagues refusing to stand by her.
Nationals frontbencher Darren Chester is among those who could replace Ms McKenzie if she is sacked from cabinet.
Mr Chester refused to support his party room colleague.
“I’m being talked about as someone who might replace her, so it would be fairly churlish of me to be talking about Bridget, whether she has my support or not,” he told ABC radio on Wednesday.
“Bridget is a friend of mine – if I say one thing you’ll say I’m standing by a friend. If I say the other thing you’ll say I’m trying to get a new job.
“So it’s best if I let the process take its course.”
Nationals leader Michael McCormack is refusing to guarantee his deputy’s position, saying he will have to wait and see the outcome of an investigation into her handling of the grants program.
“I’m not really inclined to second guess the process because I think the process has to be left to run its natural course,” he told The Australian.
“I don’t know where it might go. I guess the secretary of PM&C will get all the evidence before him, weigh all that up, make a determination based on that.
“So I don’t really know when or what he will come up with so we will just have to wait and see.”