PM’s assistant minister Ben Morton linked to clubs awarded more than $38k in grants scheme | Australia news

Scott Morrison’s assistant minister, Ben Morton, is associated with four clubs that won tens of thousands of dollars through a grants scheme he wields influence over.

Morton is the patron or member of four clubs in his Western Australia electorate of Tangney that won $38,800 in Stronger Communities grants, a scheme that allows local MPs to shape where money goes.

Morton, a close confidant of Morrison’s, has told Guardian Australia he took steps to avoid any conflict and was not a patron or member of two of the clubs at the time they expressed interest in the grants or when they were deliberated upon.

The Stronger Communities scheme gives $150,000 to each of Australia’s 151 electorates, which is then doled out in portions of up to $20,000 to individual projects that “deliver social benefits”.

Local MPs are integral to the process. They help decide which groups are able to apply and which are shut out.

Politicians identify applicants, set up community consultative committees to consider their merits and formally invite organisations to bid for a grant. Only those invited by an MP are eligible for grants, which are later assessed against the program’s criteria by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, the administering body.

As the local MP, Morton’s invitation was required for any organisation in his electorate of Tangney to be eligible.

Four clubs in Tangney that Morton has personal or professional associations with were successful. That includes the Lions Club of Bull Creek, of which Morton is a member. It won $8,200 to buy new chairs and tables.

The Ferndale Lynwood Cricket Club, the Willetton Baseball Club, and the Rostrata Junior Football Club were also successful. Morton lists himself as a patron of all three of those clubs on his register of interests.

When it won its grant, the Rostrata Junior Football Club posted a “massive” thank you to Morton.

“The Rostrata Rhinos would like to send a massive thank you to Ben Morton and his staff for their amazing assistance in obtaining a grant for $15,000 from the federal government’s stronger communities program,” the club said on Facebook.

The club later told Guardian Australia that Morton only became its patron after he had provided the invitation for it to apply for the grant.

It said there was no conflict and that Morton’s role in alerting community groups to such grant programs was critical, because they’d otherwise be unaware of much-needed funding opportunities.

“Ben is a great supporter of many local groups and in my view has acted with great integrity, especially considering his own children play at a different club to ours,” the club said.

The scheme’s guidelines say steps must be taken to identify and avoid conflicts of interest, which include any “professional, commercial or personal relationship with a party who is able to influence the application selection process”.

Organisations and MPs must declare potential conflicts, and the department can remove people from consultative committees if it deems potential conflicts as a “cause for concern”.

Morton told Guardian Australia he took the appropriate steps to avoid such conflicts. He said he did not participate in any of the consultative committee’s deliberations on any of the four grant applications.

Morton said he was not a member or patron of Ferndale Lynwood Cricket Club and the Willetton Baseball Club when they expressed interest in the program or when the consultative committee deliberated on the grants.

He also said he disclosed his association with the Rostrata Junior Football Club and the Lions Club of Bull Creek to the consultative committees when they were deliberating on their grant applications.

“Like many local MPs I am a patron or member of numerous organisations in my electorate. It’s what being a good MP is all about – being connected to your community,” Morton said.

“In line with Stronger Communities program guidelines, my memberships and patronages of sporting and community groups in Tangney under consideration are disclosed to the committee during their deliberations.”

The infrastructure department, which has policy responsibility for the program, said it does not prescribe how MPs promote the program or identify potential applicants. But it does provide “detailed guidance” to MPs on their responsibilities, including how to manage and declare “actual or perceived” conflicts of interest through the nomination process.

“As part of the online project nomination process, MPs are asked to declare any actual or perceived conflicts, or that to the best of their knowledge no conflict exists, for each project nomination submitted,” the department said.

Morton said he was fulfilling his role as a local MP by making local community organisations aware of grant opportunities to improve their facilities and grow their membership.

“That is the role of hard-working local MPs and the local community should expect that of their elected representative,” he said.

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