Pressure mounts on Scott Morrison over ineligible sports grants

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under pressure after claiming no ineligible projects were funded. Source: AAP

The federal government has dismissed damning evidence about a contentious sports grants scheme insisting all projects were eligible "at the time" the assessment was made.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of being "loose with the truth" after a Senate inquiry heard that nearly half the projects funded in the so-called sports rorts affairs were ineligible. 

On Thursday, audit officials told a Senate inquiry that 43 per cent of projects funded under the Coalition's $100 million program were not eligible for funding, contradicting the prime minister's repeated claims that there were no ineligible grants.

"This is a scandal of massive proportions. Scott Morrison on 16 occasions said that there were no ineligible projects funded," Anthony Albanese told reporters on Friday.

"He has misled the Australian people. He has also misled the Parliament, yet again. And he will have to correct the record when Parliament resumes in a week's time."

Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, February, Thursday 13, 2020. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says the prime minister has been "loose with the truth".

But the government's Senate Leader Mathias Cormann dismissed the evidence about projects being ineligible.

"No project that was funded was assessed as ineligible at the time the assessment was made," he said. 

"Not a single project which received funding had been assessed as ineligible."

An explosive audit uncovered blatant political pork-barrelling in the program, with grants awarded by the Morrison government based on colour-coded electoral margins.

The Senate inquiry has heard there were at least 28 versions of the spreadsheet, detailing which groups would receive funding and the electorate they were located in.

The document was shared with the prime minister's office and showed applications could swing from approved to denied within hours without explanation.

Labor has renewed calls for a National Integrity Commission in the wake of the scandal that led to the resignation of agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie. 

Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie.
Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie was forced to resign from Cabinet over the sports rorts scandal.

"The public do not have confidence in our politics at the moment and it would go a long way to ensuring that there was integrity in our system," Mr Albanese said.

Under questioning from Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, audit office executive Brian Boyd revealed 43 per cent of successful applications were originally deemed eligible by Sports Australia but circumstances had changed by the time the funding was signed off.

"What then happened subsequently was that late applications were taken on board, which were ineligible under the guidelines," Mr Boyd said.

"Amendments were made to four existing applications, which were ineligible under the guidelines, and they were funded."

But Nationals leader Michael McCormack again defended the sports grants program despite what the latest evidence had revealed.

"I know every one of the recipients was - well, they will back themselves to say they deserved it," he said. 

"They earned it, I know they'll benefit from it."

He said judgment should only be made once all evidence had been heard before the upper house inquiry.

"These sorts of grants make such a difference to these communities," he said. 

"I will stand by these grants, I will stand by these programs and these projects because I know what a difference they make."

When asked after the hearing about his defence of the program, Mr Morrison said he was quoting the auditor-general's report.

"I haven't seen that (verbal) evidence, I haven't seen that statement, so I will review that," he told reporters.

Mr Morrison had the head of his department - his former chief of staff - conduct a separate review that absolved the government of any wrongdoing, but prompted the resignation of former sports minister Bridget McKenzie.

Philip Gaetjens' report has not been released, but according to Mr Morrison it found "no basis for the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor".

The committee wants Mr Gaetjens to explain how he reached his conclusion.

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