Politics

Bridget McKenzie under renewed pressure to quit as Labor pushes for Senate inquiry

Bridget McKenzie during the Women's Big Bash League schedule announcement in 2018 Source: Cricket Australia

Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie is under renewed pressure to quit cabinet over a deepening sporting grants scandal.

As the sports grants controversy circling embattled minister Bridget McKenzie deepens, Labor has announced it will pursue an upper house inquiry into the matter.

The former sports minister’s handling of the contentious scheme has come under scrutiny after the Auditor General found her funding decisions favoured marginal electorates before the last election.

Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen with National Deputy Leader Bridget McKenzie
AAP

Ministerial documents obtained by the ABC have shown Senator McKenzie’s office colour-coded nearly 2,000 grant applications according to which party held the electorate.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese described the Nationals Deputy Leader's conduct as a "complete abuse" saying she has been "discredited" as a minister.

"This is a complete rort - it is a scandal of massive proportions," he told reporters.

He said Labor discussed pushing for an inquiry at a cabinet meeting in Melbourne on Wednesday.

"Every day that Bridget McKenzie stays as a cabinet minister - it undermines faith in our democracy," Mr Albanese said.

ABC reports the Nationals Deputy Leader was also warned the scheme was being compromised by political interference by government agency Sport Australia.

But Senator McKenzie, who is now agriculture minister, has resisted calls to step down, saying “no rules were broken” and all projects that received funding were eligible.

Sport Australia reportedly told Senator McKenzie's office in March last year, two months before the election, the agency's independence was at risk.

The spreadsheets obtained were used to determine which clubs would receive grants, and detailed the rating Sport Australia gave to clubs that applied for funding.

Sports Minister Richard Colbeck said the source of the leak would be investigated.

“I have asked the Secretary of the Department of Health and the CEO of Sports Australia to provide me with an assurance that documents provided to the media today relating to the assessment of Community Sports Infrastructure Grants did not come out of their agencies,” he said.

Senator McKenzie is already awaiting the findings of an investigation into her management of the sports grants program that could decide her future as a cabinet minister. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has tasked the head of his department Philip Gaetjens with determining whether Senator McKenzie breached ministerial standards.

This investigation will also look into a $36,000 grant to a Victorian shooting club, of which she was a member.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack says he will have to “wait and see” the outcome of the investigation into her handling of the grants program.

He and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have previously expressed support for Senator McKenzie.

Senator McKenzie signed up as a member of the Wangararatta Clay Target Club in January, 2019.
Senator McKenzie signed up as a member of the Wangararatta Clay Target Club in January, 2019.
Wangaratta Clay Target Club

But Nationals frontbencher Darren Chester was hesitant to back his under-pressure colleague.

He is among those who could replace Senator McKenzie if she is sacked from the cabinet.

"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.

“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."

Greens Senator Janet Rice said revelations of the colour-coded system were further evidence of the “extent of the minster’s pork barrelling” through the scheme.

“If you asked any Australian off the street: ‘How does a minister decide which sports clubs to award grants to?” she said.  

"The answer would certainly not be 'with a colour-coded system highlighting the political benefits to her own party and colleagues'.”

The spreadsheet obtained by the ABC revealed evidence that projects ranked with some of the highest scores by Sport Australia missed out on funding, while other relatively low-merit ones received grants.

Senator Bridget McKenzie plays a game of Wheelchair Rugby with Paralympic athletes.
Senator Bridget McKenzie plays a game of Wheelchair Rugby with Paralympic athletes.
AAP

Labor sports spokesperson Don Farrell said the deepening “scandal” painted an even more “shocking picture”.

“The government was prepared to go to corrupt what they said was a genuine, competitive grants program into an industrial scale pork-barrelling campaign,” he said.

Labor, Greens and crossbench senators have also expressed support for a Senate inquiry into the matter.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he expects to receive advice from the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet “when he provides it.”

“We have a process which I'm following, and she remains in the Cabinet,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

“I initiated that process well over a week ago now, and I’ll wait to receive the report.”

With additional reporting from AAP

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