Former sports minister Bridget McKenzie is adamant she wasn’t behind last-minute changes made to a list of projects she had approved funding for under the controversial sport grants program.
Two Senate estimates hearings and the committee inquiring into the matter heard this week her office sent Sport Australia an amended spreadsheet – adding nine projects worth $3.3 million – three hours after initially sending it her authorisation.
The Auditor-General told senators its investigation showed the list of projects in the third round changed twice after it was initially sent to Sport Australia on April 11.
Senator McKenzie’s office communicated with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office during that day.
In a statement issued late on Thursday, Senator McKenzie said she only became aware of these changes through the estimates committee processes.
She said the original brief she signed on April 4 – a week before it was sent to Sport Australia – did include the nine new projects among others funded in the third round of grants.
“I did not make any changes or annotations to this brief or its attachments after 4 April 2019,” she said in the statement.
“My expectation was that the brief would be processed in a timely and appropriate manner.
“Nevertheless, changes were made and administrative errors occurred in processing the brief.”
Senator McKenzie did not outline who she believed had been responsible for the changes.
“I have always taken responsibility for my actions and decisions as a minister, and this includes actions by my office,” she wrote.
“I was the minister for sport and therefore ultimately and entirely responsible for funding decisions that were signed off under my name, including and regrettably, any changes that were made unbeknown to me.
“It is unfortunate to see a popular community program, which has delivered 684 projects, with 337 being delivered regionally, being undermined.”
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Labor frontbencher Don Farrell, who has been pursuing the matter through multiple Senate committees, said Senator McKenzie’s statement just raised more questions.
“I think when she said that the final document she signed was 4 April, I think she was telling the truth,” he said.
“What we now have to find out is who’s been lying in this process.”
Sport Australia chief operating officer Luke McCann said the senator’s office told the organisation there had been errors in the original spreadsheet.
He didn’t believe it was usual for attachments to decision briefs to change, but said the same thing had occurred earlier in the first grants round.
Senator Farrell said it was fair to say there might have been “a couple of mistakes” but it was a stretch to believe that of moving 12 projects on or off the list.
“That was not an administrative error. Somebody made a calculated decision about where that money was going to be spent,” he said.
The Auditor-General has criticised the minister’s office for using the $100 million program to funnel money into marginal coalition seats or those it targeted during the 2019 election.
It found nearly three-quarters of the grants approved were not recommended by Sport Australia’s merit-based assessment process.
Senator McKenzie said she made no apology for using her ministerial discretion and it was unfortunate to see the program being undermined.