Sports rorts: McKenzie denies taking the fall for PM

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday February 15, 2021

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Former sports minister Bridget McKenzie has rejected suggestions that the prime minister asked her to “take the fall” for the controversial sports grants program, and denied that the scheme had been politicised.

McKenzie faced the sports rorts inquiry for the first time on Friday afternoon, more than a year after an Australian National Audit Office report found that grants allocated through the sports infrastructure program had been used to target key electorates in the months leading up to the 2019 federal election.

She denied that the “wildly popular and highly successful” scheme had been politicised.

“I completely reject that the exercise of my ministerial discretion resulted in negative politicisation of the program,” she told the inquiry.

McKenzie also said that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his office had not been involved in approving the final round of sports projects to receive funding, stating she was “very happy” to take responsibility for the program.

“The PM did not have a role in authorising projects throughout the three rounds, and the final decision maker was me. I take responsibility for all the decisions taken in this program.”

The inquiry has previously heard that 136 emails were exchanged between the PM’s office and McKenzie’s office regarding the scheme between October 17 2018 and April 11 2019.

One email, sent on April 10, contained spreadsheets of approved projects categorised by state, political party and electorate. The 2019 federal election was called the following day. Morrison has previously claimed his office had merely “passed on information about other funding options or programs relevant to project proposals” in the emails.

Read more: Sports rorts: McKenzie denies changing list of successful clubs during caretaker period

McKenzie told the inquiry on Friday that the correspondence with the PMO wasn’t unusual.

On the day the 2019 election was called — and after Parliament had gone into caretaker mode — Sport Australia received two emails from McKenzie’s office. The first email detailed the successful projects for the final round of the grants program. The second email, received several hours later, contained a changed list of projects.

At the time the revelations emerged, McKenzie had denied that she had anything to do with the changed list, putting it down to “administrative errors”.

On Friday she said the changes were made by one of her staff members — not the PMO — but couldn’t say who.

“The brief was processed in my office, and sent to Sport Australia in my office. The PMO was not responsible for altering the attachment to the round three brief. It was submitted to Sport Australia, not in a timely manner, from my office,” she said.

McKenzie didn’t investigate which staff member made the change because she was no longer the minister, she said.

In January 2020 Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens was tasked with investigating whether McKenzie had breached ministerial standards in her handling of the grants program.

While Gaetjens supposedly found no evidence that the program had been politicised, he concluded that McKenzie had breached ministerial standards, prompting her resignation from her role as agriculture minister. Gaetjens’ findings have not been made public.

On Friday Labor senator Anthony Chisholm asked McKenzie whether her resignation was a favour to the government, which she rejected.

“Have you been promised anything by the prime minister to take the fall for this?” Chisholm asked.

“Oh, come on. Really?” McKenzie replied.

In a statement following the hearing, Chisholm and Labor senator Don Farrell accused Morrison of making McKenzie a “scapegoat” as part of a cover-up “to protect the prime minister and shield his office from proper scrutiny”.

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