Australia

'Lack of moral compass': Steggall, Lambie slam handling of 'biased' $100 million sports grants

Senator Bridget McKenzie is under pressure over her handling of a $100 million sports grants program. Source: AAP

Cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie is resisting calls to resign over her handling of a $100 million community sports grant program.

Former Olympic skier Zali Steggall has slammed Bridget McKenzie over her handling of a $100 million community sports grant program prior to the federal election.

Auditor-general Grant Hehir found the then-sports minister favoured marginal seats and electorates being targeted by the Coalition through funding under the scheme, ignoring-merit based recommendations.

Speaking on ABC Radio, Ms Steggall described evidence of “bias” in the scheme’s handling as “disgusting,” adding to pressure from Labor for The Nationals deputy leader to step down.

“I just think the whole thing is quite disgusting, from the minister’s comments…it shows her complete lack of moral compass,” the independent MP said.

Independent MP Zali Steggall at Parliament House in Canberra.
Independent MP Zali Steggall at Parliament House in Canberra.
AAP

“She’s completely lost if she doesn’t think there is something wrong with cheating kids and community sports clubs.”

Senator McKenzie has been defiant against criticism of her oversight of the program, dismissing calls for her to resign as “absolutely ridiculous.”

The now-agriculture minister denies misusing taxpayer money in a cash splash ahead of the May poll, insisting the program was “highly successful”.

“The auditor-general’s report is really, really clear. No rules were broken, every single one of those projects that was funded was eligible,” she told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.

“My intervention actually increased the number of projects being delivered to local sporting clubs in Labor Party electorates.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen with then Minister for Sports Bridget McKenzie at Penrith Valley Regional Sports Centre in Sydney.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen with then Minister for Sports Bridget McKenzie at Penrith Valley Regional Sports Centre in Sydney.
AAP

Nine of the 10 electorates awarded the most money through the program were either marginal seats or ones the Coalition was eyeing off before the election.

“Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed,” the auditor-general's report said.

These seats would have received less funding if government agency Sports Australia's merit assessments had been used, rather than it being left up to the minister to make the final call. 

The report also questioned the legal authority of the minister to make final funding decisions.

Sports Australia received more than 2,000 applications for almost $400 million in federal government funding.

In the lead up to the election, it had approved more than $100 million in grants.

The report determined 41 per cent of projects awarded funding were not recommended by Sports Australia based on the program’s criteria.

In one round of funding, projects located in "marginal" and "targeted" seats accounted for 36 per cent of the total amount sought by applicants – and received 47 per cent of the money distributed.

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

During the first round of the program, 41 per cent of approved projects were not on the list of those recommended by Sports Australia. This figure rose to 70 per cent in the second round - and in the third reached 73 per cent.        

Labor has called this a blatant example of pork-barreling to win voter support.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said Senator McKenzie's position as a minister is "untenable."

"This is just a disgrace," he said.

"This is outrageous behaviour by a government that really believes that it has a right to do whatever it likes, whenever it likes, wherever it likes."

Some observers have drawn parallels between this controversy and the so-called 'sports rorts affair' in the 1990s.

That led to the resignation of then Labor sports minister Ros Kelly after she was unable to explain the handing out of grants to marginal electorates under a $30 million scheme.

Opposition leader at the time John Hewson lead the charge to see her stand down.

"The similarities between that affair and what has happened this time are very strong ... Bridget McKenzie's got a case to answer," he told SBS News.

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck isn't it?" 

Former Liberal party leader John Hewson.
Former Liberal party leader John Hewson.
SBS News

Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie joined calls for Senator McKenzie to resign, saying she would support an upper house inquiry into the matter.

"I agree with Zali Steggall, it is disgusting and where is our PM on this? Are there any consequences for this shocking behaviour?" she tweeted.

But Senator McKenzie maintains she has no reason to apologise.

“If anything … there was a case of reverse pork barreling going on,” Senator McKenzie said on Thursday.

The minister said because of her intervention 34 per cent of projects went to Labor-held electorates, a figure that is 8 per cent higher than original recommendations.

Ms Steggall said local community sports clubs that missed out were “clearly in dire needs of those funds.”

“At the end of the day we really need a national integrity commission - there needs to be some accountability," she said.

"I mean how low are you prepared to let the standard drop."

The audit was triggered by Labor after Liberal candidate Georgina Downer gave out a $127,000 cheque for a local bowling club in South Australia.

The Community Sports Infrastructure Grant Program was launched in 2018, aiming to increase participation through upgrades to local sporting clubs including more female change rooms.

With AAP

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