Former minister Bridget McKenzie’s office emailed through a final round of ‘sports rorts’ approvals after the government had entered the caretaker period and on the day the federal election was called, according to sensational evidence to Senate estimates.
In evidence to Senate estimates on Thursday, Sport Australia confirmed it received an email from then sports minister Bridget McKenzie’s office at 8.46am on the day the 2019 election was called. It outlined which projects should be funded.
Traditionally, a government avoids making major policy decisions during the caretaker period, until the result of an election is known.
Labor Senator Katy Gallagher noted that the government went into caretaker mode at 8.30am on April 11, 2019.
“When was the Parliament dissolved on that day? You aware of that?” she said on Thursday.
“I’m of the understanding it’s at 8.30am or about that time. So if you received it at 8.46am, we’re actually in caretaker at that point in time.”
Caretaker provisions are a convention observed by both sides of politics but approving a project after the election was called does not mean the decision or the approval was illegal or void.
According to evidence at Senate estimates, the brief was signed on April 4, 2019 – before the May 18 election was called.
But that raised questions from Labor about whether it had been backdated, given correspondence with the Prime Minister’s office on April 10.
“We know that on the 10th of April [there was] interaction between the minister and the Prime Minister over approval for round three,” Senator Gallagher said.
“Then on the 11th of April, the signed brief was returned. And we know that Sport Australia didn’t receive that brief until the 11th of April at 8.46am. It would be very useful to find out when that approval brief was sent to the minister’s office. So the brief was signed off on the 4th of April, is that according to your records?”
Later, in question time, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese seized on the revelations.
“Sport Australia has given evidence to the Senate they received the backdated brief from the Government, approving sports rorts projects for funding at 8.46am on the day the election was called,” he said.
“Given the House was dissolved at 8.30am that day, why did the Prime Minister breach caretaker conventions by spending tens of millions of dollars on sports rorts on the day he called the election?”
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he did not agree with the claim the paperwork was backdated.
“The testimony today from Sport Australia was that they received a brief from Senator McKenzie dated 4 April, 2019. It was authorised by the minister on 4 April, 2019,” he said.
“There was no authorisation provided by me as Prime Minister on the projects. Those authorisations were provided on 4 April, according to the approval of the brief by Senator McKenzie, on that date, as advised by Sport Australia”
Earlier, Australian Sports Commission chair John Wylie said Senator McKenzie had broad powers to approve projects under the program guidelines.
“It was … ultimately the minister’s prerogative to make decisions as the minister saw fit,” he said.
“Our organisation did raise risks with the minister through that email and other communication that identified the risks in making decisions independently or differently from the merit-based assessment that came from our organisation.
“But that was the basis in which this program was established under the program guidelines.”