The former sports minister at the centre of the sports rorts scandal has blamed public servants for not voicing their concerns over her handling of a federal government grant scheme.
In the report which first raised major questions about the community sport infrastructure grant scheme, the Australian National Audit Office concluded that it was “not evident to the ANAO what the legal authority [for Bridget McKenzie to approve grants] was”.
The audit report suggested the the program had been used to target key electorates in the months leading up to the 2019 election, with the final list of approved projects changed the day the election was called.
At a Canberra doorstop on Friday, McKenzie said Sport Australia and the Department of Health had failed to raise any issues regarding the scheme.
“If there was any issue around the legality of how this program was going to be run, then my expectation of the Australian Public Service is that they would’ve raised it with me,” she said.
“The ANAO report also goes on to say that both Sport Australia, the Department of Health and other entities did not raise it with me — there is no evidence of that being raised with me as an issue.
“And, I’m sorry, if there is an issue around the legality, then that should’ve been raised with the appropriate minister.”
McKenzie said the grants scheme was “designed to give the minister final approval”. Noting the approvals had gone through the cabinet and the expenditure review committee, McKenzie said “if there was an issue, there are multiple steps through that process that that should’ve been raised”.
Sports Australia last week confirmed it had not advised McKenzie on her legal authority, claiming the legal basis was “Sport Australia’s own powers under the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989”.
“In exercising its powers, it was open to Sport Australia to take account of the minister’s approval,” it said.
Sport Australia hadn’t received legal advice on McKenzie’s authority until February 2020, despite the final list of projects having been approved in April 2019.
Following a brief period free from scrutiny — brought about by the coronavirus pandemic — national focus recently returned to the sports grants scheme when the ANAO revealed that in March 2019, the prime minister’s office had told McKenzie’s office that she was expected to write to the PM to seek “authority” on the approved sports projects, and to inform him of the “roll out plan”.
McKenzie has since defended the emails, claiming that she had only sought authority to announce the successful projects that would be funded through the program.
“That is very normal to occur when you’re in government, that you liaise with the prime minister’s office to make sure that your announcements of any given projects happen in a timely and responsible manner,” she said on Friday.
McKenzie argued she couldn’t release evidence to back that claim due to lacking access to ministerial correspondence.