Sports grants: PM won’t concede fault but says clubs may get a second chance | Australia news
Scott Morrison has signalled sports clubs that missed out in a controversial $100m grants program may be given funding in future, promising to work with the treasurer on more funding, despite conceding no fault in his government’s handling of sports grants.
The offer comes as clubs recommended by Sport Australia but rejected by former sports minister Bridget McKenzie come forward to complain of their disappointment at missing out under the community sport infrastructure grant program, which the auditor general found was skewed towards marginal seats.
Morrison’s appearance at the National Press Club on Wednesday to discuss the policy response to the bushfires was dominated instead by questions about the sports program.
The prime minister again defended the program by insisting all projects given grants were eligible under the rules and argued that politicians were better connected to their communities and therefore entitled to overrule departmental recommendations.
McKenzie’s position in cabinet is still in doubt, with Morrison’s departmental secretary and former chief of staff Phil Gaetjens yet to report about whether she breached ministerial standards.
Despite the auditor general stating it was “not evident” what legal authority McKenzie had to give grants, Morrison claimed “there was a ministerial authority to make decisions in this matter and that’s what was exercised”.
Morrison said that politicians were “part of our community” and “accountable to … people in our community”, drawing a contrast with the public service by listing examples of unrelated departmental recommendations overturned by ministers, such as a decision to reinstate funding for Foodbank.
Asked about worthy sports clubs that missed out, Morrison said there were “many, many more worthy projects in this area” and committed to “work with the treasurer to see how we can better support even more projects in the future”.
Morrison agreed that public money should not be spent on personal political gain. He insisted “that is not what the government has done”, without explaining what other criteria was applied by McKenzie, who selected projects from a list colour-coded by which party held the electorate in which they were located.
Morrison dodged a question about why cabinet had extended the program by $42m in March 2019, given program guidelines specified funding was meant for projects that hadn’t started construction but grants had to be spent by June.
“As the auditor general found, the rules were followed … guidelines are separate issues,” he replied.
Earlier, Labor increased the pressure on Morrison and McKenzie by announcing it will move to set up an inquiry into the sports grants program.
In a statement, Anthony Albanese said the “communities that were cheated by this government deserve answers” including details of the recommended projects that missed out and “which applications the government facilitated weeks or months after the window for applications closed”.
“The auditor general’s report and now almost daily whistle-blowing have exposed this government’s political pork-barrelling campaign on an industrial scale,” he said.
The Woorabinda Aboriginal Shire Council, in the traditional lands of the Wadja Wadja and Yungulu people in central Queensland, was one of those which missed out.
Its application for a $500,000 grant to improve local sporting facilities was rated 84 out of 100 by Sport Australia, well above the 74 mark cut-off.
The local mayor, Phillip Alberts, said he’s starting to learn the region rarely wins grants from the federal government, something he described as “heartbreaking”.
“It’s hard,” Alberts told Guardian Australia. “[The sport grant] would have made a big difference for us in our community.”
“Don’t ask me why, but it’s pretty hard to get anything. [Other councils] get everything that they desire and we – because we’re in the sticks, in the middle of nowhere – it’s hard for us to get stuff out here. It is frustrating.”
Cherry Gardens Ironbank Recreation Ground, in the Centre Alliance-held seat of Mayo, received a score of 94 on its request for $480,621 for new female-friendly change rooms.
Andy Adams, the president of Cherry Gardens, said it was “in desperate need of new change rooms” for its netball club of 250 members and two female football teams.
“The visitors’ change room is essentially a 30-year-old large shed: it’s cold in winter and there are no adequate shower facilities,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We found out yesterday about the high score [we received], it was disappointing and frustrating for the club, volunteers and members who put a lot of time in putting together the application.”
The Coromandel Valley Ramblers Cricket Club, also in the seat of Mayo, received a score of 90 for its project – $50,000 towards a club room and toilet block.
The president, Matt Smith, said he was “not surprised” by the way money was distributed because “this practice has been happening for a long time”.
“It’s frustrating that’s not done on merit. I know why they’re done the way they are … It’s for political gain, essentially, dollars for votes.”
Both clubs are not considering joining a legal challenge of the federal scheme at this stage, citing other grants applications at the local and state level.
The Port Fairy Tennis Club, in the education minister Dan Tehan’s seat of Wannon, received a score of 83 for its request for $50,000 for major infrastructure works including modified courts for junior members.
The secretary, Alison Zehir, told Guardian Australia the club had “significantly scaled back its current infrastructure program”, leaving planned junior courts in limbo.
“The club is very disappointed to learn that our strong application was overlooked for federal sports grant funding,” she said.
“Our belief is that applications should be judged on merit and need, so it is disappointing to not receive the grant.”