The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet head has defended his probe into former sport minister Bridget McKenzie during his Wednesday appearance before the Senate inquiry into the sports rorts saga.
The inquiry heard that McKenzie and Sport Australia boss Kate Palmer were the only people interviewed during PM&C secretary Phil Gaetjens’ investigation into whether McKenzie had breached ministerial standards during her handling of a $100 million federal sports grants scheme.
Gaetjens was tasked with leading the probe back in January after an audit report suggested the grants 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.
Gaetjens’ office had asked McKenzie questions via two letters before interviewing her in person, the inquiry heard. The secretary met with McKenzie again on the day of her resignation to go through his findings.
Meanwhile, the interview with Palmer was conducted over the phone.
Gaetjens said he did not look into the controversial 136 emails sent between the prime minister’s office and McKenzie’s office during his investigation into McKenzie’s handling of the sport grant program because — as the inquiry has previously heard — he did not know they existed at the time.
“There’s been comment that there’s been emails between the prime minister’s staff and the then-minister’s office but I haven’t seen any of that,” he said.
Gaetjens didn’t examine the 28 colour-coded spreadsheets detailing the allocated grants for the same reason. He also didn’t interview the prime minister, any of his staff, or any of McKenzie’s staff, the inquiry heard.
“The minister is responsible for the actions of her staff, so the interview with her I thought was sufficient,” he said.
In his final report — which was never made public — Gaetjens concluded that McKenzie had breached ministerial standards by failing to disclose that she was a member of a gun club that received funding through the sports grants scheme, prompting her resignation.
However, Gaetjens did not find evidence that grant allocations had been influenced by marginal or targeted electorates, contradicting the Australian National Audit Office’s findings.
Questioning the secretary on his investigation, Labor senator Katy Gallagher argued Gaetjens had “limited evidence” on which to base his conclusions. Gaetjens defended his approach to the probe, stating that he had been informed by “arithmetic and mathematics”.
“The remit of my inquiry was to look at the minister and did she apparently breach the standards,” he said.
“That went to fairness, it also went to disclosure of interests.”
Gaetjens has previously argued that there was “persuasive data” showing McKenzie’s decisions to approve grants were not based on marginal and targeted electorates.
In his report, the national auditor-general had also concluded that it was “not evident to the ANAO what the legal authority [for McKenzie to approve grants] was” in the first place.
Gaetjens told the inquiry he did not consider that finding because it was “not part of the ministerial standards”, and noted that he was “not asked to go over and audit the entire program”.
“My job was not to replicate the auditor-general … he was doing a different job, I was asked about apparent breaches of the minister,” he said.
The inquiry heard Gaetjens also hadn’t known that money had been administered through the grants program during the caretaker period, and by the time he found out his report had already been filed.
“By that time the minister had resigned. Why does one need to have a look at something when the minister has resigned?” he said.
Gallagher pressed Gaetjens on why he hadn’t pursued the matter.
“Oh come on Mr Gaetjens, you’re the head of the public service. It doesn’t bother you taxpayers funds are being spent after caretaker kicks in?” she said.
He argued that “lots of things happen” during caretaker provisions, but admitted he was not aware of any other cases of funding approvals being made without the ministers’ knowledge.
McKenzie has previously denied that she had altered the list of clubs approved for funding under the grants program while the government was in caretaker mode. In regards to the 136 emails, Scott Morrison has claimed his office had merely “passed on information about other funding options or programs relevant to project proposals” .