Under-fire senator Bridget McKenzie has denied being asked to “take the fall” for Scott Morrison over the sports rorts saga, but claimed not to know which of her staff altered a key document.
The Nationals senator on Friday fronted a senate committee into a controversial community sports grant scheme she oversaw.
The government was accused of misusing taxpayer funds to target marginal seats before the 2019 election.
She said there was “nothing unusual” about the Prime Minister’s Office’s (PMO) involvement in the scheme, and took “full responsibility” for how funding was allocated.
“The Prime Minister did not have a role in authorising projects during the three rounds of the program,” she said.
“I take responsibility for all the decisions made within this program. I was the minister. I was the final decision maker, and proudly so.”
Senator McKenzie resigned from the frontbench in February last year, accepting she had failed to disclose membership of two gun clubs that received funding from the scheme.
More than 100 emails were exchanged between the PMO and Senator McKenzie’s office regarding the program.
Labor senator Anthony Chisholm grilled her on whether she had been asked to resign in a bid to kill the story.
“Have you been promised anything by the prime minister to take the fall for this?” he asked.
“Oh, come on. Really? Absolutely not at all,” Senator McKenzie replied.
Senator McKenzie admitted an attachment on a ministerial briefing had been altered without her knowledge, and after she had signed it.
But she ruled out the PMO being responsible, insisting the attachment was altered by a member of her staff.
“I can’t identify a specific person. But I categorically know the change was made within my office, because that’s where the brief was processed,” she said.
But she claimed not to know which staff member altered the document, and said she did not ask.
“Surely the inquisitive side of you would have gone: I must find out who was responsible for that,” Mr Chisholm said.
“Well, I was no longer the minister,” she replied.
“So you just ignored it and thought: this got approved late, without my authority, and you just let that go?” he said.
Senator McKenzie simply responded she “took full responsibility for the actions of my office”.
An auditor-general report concluded in January 2020 funding under the scheme was targeted at marginal seats, with deserving applications overlooked elsewhere.
The National Audit Office found the following month 43 per cent of projects that received funding were ineligible, undermining a key government defence.
But Senator McKenzie reiterated the government’s rejection of those findings, saying the majority of funding went to Labor-held seats.
“I completely reject that the exercise of my ministerial discretion resulted in the negative politicisation of the program,” she told the committee.
It was the first time Senator McKenzie appeared before the committee in person, having previously provided written statements.
The committee heard earlier from Sarah Black, general manager at the Olympia Football Club, located in a Tasmanian safe-Labor seat.
Ms Black said she was “very upset and very angry” to learn her bid was rejected, despite scoring more than twice as high on the eligibility criteria as some successful applications.
“It does make you wonder why keep applying for these grants. We just want it to be a fair and transparent process. And I guess we feel that it hasn’t been that way,” she said.
SPORTS RORTS SAGA: HOW WE GOT HERE
A scathing auditor-general report into funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program was released in January 2020.
It concluded funding was targeted at marginal seats in the lead-up to the 2019 election, while deserving applications were overlooked by then-sports minister Bridget McKenzie.
The report also found Senator McKenzie may not have had the authority to choose recipients, and the entire scheme could have been illegal.
Senator McKenzie claimed all recipients were eligible under the scheme, a defence repeated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
But that claim suffered a blow when it was revealed nearly half of the businesses to receive funding were ineligible.
The government rejected the findings.
It launched its own investigation via the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC), run by public servant and Mr Morrison’s former chief-of-staff Phil Gaetjens.
The Gaetjens Report found Ms McKenzie breached ministerial standards by failing to disclose her membership of two gun clubs that received funding from the program.
She resigned from the frontbench in February 2020 as a result, but continued to insist grants had been issued appropriately.
The full Gaetjens report has not been made public.