Penny Wong has grilled Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet staff over how much they knew about correspondence between the offices of the Prime Minister and the former sports minister regarding government sports grants.
Last Wednesday it was revealed that 136 emails were exchanged between Scott Morrison’s office and Bridget McKenzie’s office regarding the controversial sports grants program between October 17 2018 and April 11 2019.
During Senate Estimates on Monday, Labor Senate leader Wong questioned PM&C’s deputy secretary of governance group Stephanie Foster on the emails and spreadsheets circulated to the PM’s office “on at least four occasions”.
Foster, the PM&C secretary Phil Gaetjens, and other PM&C staff were unaware of those details at the time of Gaetjens’ investigation into whether McKenzie had breached ministerial standards in her handling of the grants program, Foster said. She had also only learnt that there were 28 versions of the spreadsheet of approved sports grants when the Australian National Audit Office had provided that evidence to the inquiry, she said.
Last week Morrison claimed his office had merely “passed on information about other funding options or programs relevant to project proposals” in the emails. On Monday, Wong demanded copies of the emails, and argued “136 emails is not providing information, it’s running the program”.
Foster noted herself, first assistant secretary of government division John Reid, and assistant secretary of parliamentary and government branch Peter Rush, had assisted Gaetjens with his investigation.
She said the only interviews conducted for the probe were between Gaetjens and McKenzie, and Foster and the former CEO of Sport Australia Kate Palmer.
“Apart from that, our interactions with either Sport Australia or the Department of Health, or with Senator McKenzie’s staff, were, typically, to try and identify documents or information rather than what I’d call an interview,” she added.
There were no interviews with anyone in the Prime Minister’s office, which angered Wong. Foster noted that Gaetjens “had a very specific role assigned”, which was to look at whether McKenzie had breached ministerial standards.
Wong argued Gaetjens’ probe “was kept deliberately narrow so as to protect the Prime Minister and his office”, which Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rejected.
“The Prime Minister could walk on water and you would say: why can’t he swim?” he said.
“He doesn’t walk on water. In fact, he’s been a very naughty boy,” Wong replied.
“There were 136 emails between Mr Morrison’s office and Senator McKenzie’s office about this and spreadsheet versions provided to him, but somehow, magically, Mr Gaetjens doesn’t find that he’s got anything to do with it. No-one looking at this can come to any conclusion other than Mr Morrison is up to his neck in this.”
Gaetjens will appear before a Senate inquiry into the scandal on March 16.