The $100 million sports grants scandal threatening the career of a senior federal minister kicked off in a small town on the Fleurieu Peninsula.
The $100 million sports grants scandal threatening the career of a senior federal minister kicked off in a small town on the Fleurieu Peninsula.

It started with a novelty cheque and spiralled into disaster

Georgina Downer's federal election campaign team could never have predicted the $100 million sports grants scandal that would explode when she handed a novelty cheque to the Yankalilla Bowling Club.

To them, it would have been something minor - just a photo-op about the Liberal candidate helping to secure $127,373 for a club to install solar panels and replace a bowling green.

But the picture sparked an audit that has now exposed a deeper pork-barrelling scandal that looks set to dog the Morrison Government for months.

Georgina Downer presents a giant novelty cheque to the Yankalilla Bowling Club in February 2019. She would go on to lose the election in Mayo to Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie. Picture: Georgina Downer – Liberal for Mayo/Facebook
Georgina Downer presents a giant novelty cheque to the Yankalilla Bowling Club in February 2019. She would go on to lose the election in Mayo to Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie. Picture: Georgina Downer – Liberal for Mayo/Facebook

Former sports minister and deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie is refusing to resign but an investigation into whether she breached ministerial standards is tipped to be handed down before Parliament resumes on Tuesday.

If she didn't breach ministerial standards, she may keep her job - but the public outrage won't go away any time soon.

Senator McKenzie insists no rules were broken in her handling of the Community Sport Infrastructure Grants program. But pressure is mounting for heads to roll after more revelations this week about how taxpayer funds were directed to target marginal seats ahead of the 2019 federal election.

Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie is herself in the firing line. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie is herself in the firing line. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Here's how the scandal unfolded. In February last year, Ms Downer, vying for the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo, presented a novelty cheque for grant funding to the bowling club. Labor accused her of misusing the grant because it was taxpayer money, not Liberal Party cash. Opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus referred it to the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), which confirmed it would investigate.

The matter then exploded on January 15 this year when the ANAO released its damning report. It found Sport Australia had assessed 2056 applications for funding on merit but the minister's office conduced a "parallel" process that used considerations "such as the location of projects", including if they were in target electorates.

More than 60 per cent of the 684 grants approved by the minister did not meet Sport Australia's merit threshold.

The sports grants saga could dog Prime Minister Scott Morrison until the next election. Picture: Gary Ramage
The sports grants saga could dog Prime Minister Scott Morrison until the next election. Picture: Gary Ramage

The report also raised questions about the minister's "legal authority" to approve the grants. Senator McKenzie faced immediate calls to resign, even though she was no longer sport minister, but Agriculture Minister and a member of Mr Morrison's Cabinet.

Attorney-General Christian Porter was tasked with looking into the minister's legal authority to approve grants.

It then emerged, on January 22, that Senator McKenzie had approved $36,000 for a shooting club where she was a member. That day, Mr Morrison confirmed he had referred her handling of the grants scheme to Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's Secretary Phillip Gaetjens to investigate a potential breach of ministerial standards.

Nationals were privately telling media they didn't think Senator McKenzie could survive but she refused to resign.

The scandal escalated this week when Senator McKenzie's former staffers revealed they had voiced concerns about the scheme in late 2018.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack – whose own leadership is tenuous after failing to cut through with the public – has remained supportive of his deputy, Bridget McKenzie, who is propping up his own job. Picture Gary Ramage
Nationals leader Michael McCormack – whose own leadership is tenuous after failing to cut through with the public – has remained supportive of his deputy, Bridget McKenzie, who is propping up his own job. Picture Gary Ramage

A spreadsheet of grant applications - colour-coded by the minister's office based on which political party held the electorate they were in - was then leaked to the ABC. It showed at least 12 SA sports clubs missed out on funding, despite being among the top 50 groups Sport Australia considered worthy of a grant.

It emerged that Sport Australia officials had last year voiced concerns about how the scheme was handled.

A Senate inquiry will be launched into the matter when Parliament resumes.

For Mr Morrison, the fallout could drag on as far as the next election.

 

 


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