Probe into minister’s grant to gun club
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked the nation’s top bureaucrat to review whether embattled Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie breached ministerial standards by approving a $36,000 grant to a shooting club of which she was a member.
The so-called sports rorts saga also threatens to drag Nationals leader Michael McCormack into the controversy as it emerged his son’s country football club in the NSW Riverina received a $147,000 grant under the program.
Support is rapidly eroding for the Agriculture Minister within federal government ranks, with Nationals MPs now canvassing whether the Victorian senator can survive in her role as the grants program that she administered threatens to engulf the Coalition.
It was also revealed last night that Senator McKenzie had admitted she was a member of the Wangaratta Clay Target Club in a press conference to local media at the time she approved a grant in
February last year, and had made a decision to fund the club under the $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure grants program after personally viewing the facilities.
A statement from Mr Morrison’s office last night said the Prime Minister had referred the revelations from the Herald story and a damning Auditor-General’s report to the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens.
‘‘The Prime Minister is awaiting the secretary’s advice and will continue to follow due process. The matters raised in the media today have also been referred,’’ the statement said.
The Auditor-General’s report last week slammed Senator McKenzie over her handling of the $100 million program, revealing that she and her staff had intervened hundreds of times to overturn the merit-based assessments of applications from sporting groups for cash.
Mr McCormack strongly supported his deputy yesterday and rejected suggestions the program had been manipulated to fund his son’s football club, Mangoplah-Cookardinia United Eastlakes Football and Netball Club, in December 2018. At the time Mr McCormack’s son, Alex, was the club treasurer.
Mr McCormack told the Herald neither he nor his son had any involvement in the club’s decision to apply or its application for funding under the program.
‘‘Upon learning the MCUE Club had lodged an application, I alerted Senator McKenzie verbally about my family connection to the club and recused myself from any comment, advocacy or otherwise in relation to this application,’’ he said.
Senator McKenzie has refused to reveal whether she declared her potential conflict or recused herself from discussions to fund the Wangaratta shooting club.
In a video of her press conference on the day she announced the funding, the Nationals deputy leader said she had joined the club ‘‘a couple of weeks ago’’.
The footage from the press conference in February last year casts doubt on Senator McKenzie’s claims that funding decisions on the grant program were already under way and that the membership was ‘‘a gift’’.
‘‘When the club came to me when I joined up as its member a couple of weeks ago and showed me the facilities and amenities that this club had, I knew it was something that our government had to support,’’ Senator McKenzie said at the time.
Club secretary Linda Motha said yesterday she had ‘‘nothing to say’’ on the issue.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the revelations that the senator had overseen funding to a shooting club of which she was a member ‘‘fails every test’’ and she had to resign.
‘‘This is just red hot. This is just a rort. It fails the pub test. It fails every test,’’ he told Adelaide radio station FIVEaa. ‘‘If Scott Morrison doesn’t take action here, this goes to fundamental integrity and faith in politics.’’
A handful of Senator McKenzie’s Nationals colleagues, who declined to speak on the record, told the Herald it was ‘‘doubtful’’ whether she could continue in the job.
‘‘No one wants to see her discarded but it is getting beyond embarrassing now. She should stand aside,’’ one MP said.
Attorney-General Christian Porter, who has been tasked with working out the legality of Senator McKenzie’s grant approvals, said the process had been within the guidelines.
“What I fundamentally don’t accept is that ministers should not be involved in final approval for projects. That’s their job,” he told 6PR Perth radio.
Morrisons magic band
The auditor general released a scathing report on the program, finding it had a distributional bias in favour of marginal seats and suggesting the then sports minister may have lacked legal authority to approve grants.
The prime minister boasted the program ‘isn’t about sport’ but ‘community’ while unveiling one $200,000 grant