The Morrison government has been accused of using a $640 million regional grants scheme as a taxpayer-funded election slush fund by freezing out independents Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie from the big announcements.
Regional Services Minister Bridget McKenzie’s visit to the Victorian electorate of Indi sparked controversy on Monday after she angered the local independent Ms McGowan, who has steadfastly provided a guarantee of supply and confidence to the Morrison government.
Senator McKenzie is accused of briefing the Liberal and Nationals candidates for the seat of a string of community announcements on more than $3 million in grants but keeping the MP who helped lodge the submissions, Ms McGowan, in the dark.
“We want it to stop,” Ms McGowan told The New Daily.
“I’ve been sitting around and stewing about it. I normally just put up with it. What [the community] got was unelected campaign people. They were really upset by that.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s just how they do business. It absolutely embarrasses my very good community people who in good faith has made an application.
“They felt compromised. It makes everyone feels uncomfortable at what should have been a community celebration.”
Ms McGowan said she accepted that Senator McKenzie, as the minister, would make the announcement.
But by trying to stop Ms McGowan from attending the announcements Senator McKenzie showed bad manners and left the community compromised and embarrassed.
“What happened [on Monday] was so overtly political. The National Party candidate was there. The Liberal Party candidate was there. Bridget McKenzie was there and I wasn’t there,” said Ms McGowan, who announced her retirement in January.
“There’s $3.4 million coming to Indi. So what happened is they do all the announcements and they don’t tell us. Our poor communities are completely compromised.”
Over the weekend, Ms McGowan said she started getting calls from constituents asking if she would be at the events on Monday.
“And then they are all embarrassed and saying ‘Don’t you know?’ ” she said.
“I decided not to go because I wasn’t invited. And if I turned up it would be excruciating for the individual who told me.”
It’s fantastic to be opening my new office along with @M_McCormackMP and @The_Nationals candidate for Indi Mark Byatt in the great city of Wodonga. Looking forward to spending time here in the regions. #lovetheregions #thinklocal #auspol pic.twitter.com/S34pRdqjwl
— Senator Bridget McKenzie (@senbmckenzie) February 25, 2019
Ms McGowan said the process was a mess, with some grant recipients not told they had secured the grants.
“One person said Prime 7 rang us and told us. Then I ring a different recipient and they didn’t know. It’s been a haphazard approach to letting people know.
“The senators told some and not others. They haven’t got a letter. Then they ring us and say, ‘When do we get the money? Can we start building ?’ ”
Adding insult to injury, after her office raised complaints on Monday, she received a personal call from the minister inviting her to an event with less than 30 minutes’ notice.
“At 12.30pm, suddenly it’s Bridget on the phone inviting me to Wangaratta for an event at 1pm,” she said.
“It was just the brazen nature of that. One of my staff picked the phone up and took the call.”
The New Daily has contacted Senator McKenzie for her response to the claims.
The controversy follows anger over a Liberal candidate, Georgina Downer, posing for photographs with a giant cheque in the electorate of independent Ms Sharkie, in the Adelaide Hills.
If Georgina Downer was the Member for Mayo, this cheque would STILL be totally inappropriate. The cheque came from the Australian tax payer – not the Liberal Party. This stinks! #BowlingGate pic.twitter.com/rLT5jTW881
— Queen Victoria (@Vic_Rollison) February 24, 2019
“This is public money and they are treating it as their own little election bucket,” Ms Sharkie told The New Daily.
“This is really poor form. This is public money. The protocol is the federal member should be advised.”
The $641.6 Building Better Regions Fund grants announced on Monday included $1 million for the Beechworth to Yackandandah Epic Mountain Bike Trail and “revitalising” a caravan park.
In a media statement, Senator McKenzie claimed she had announced the successful round-three grant applicants “after being invited to the region by the Nationals candidate for Indi Mark Byatt, who had been working hard to ensure Indi was well represented in this round of funding”.
“Fourteen projects across Indi will share in $3,452,500, as part of the $200 million available for projects under round three – with up to $45 million earmarked to support tourism-related infrastructure projects,” she said.
The protocol is that the local Federal MP is notified of a grant prior to the Minister advising the club. In more than a decade of politics I’ve never seen a TAX-PAYER funded grant delivered by cheque with a candidate’s face and name on it. Rather desperate and misleading.
— Rebekha Sharkie MP (@MakeMayoMatter) February 23, 2019