Published on 7.30 Report 22nd January 2020.

PETER WILLIAMS, CASTLEMAINE BOWLING CLUB:  The Castlemaine Bowling Club provides a really important function in our community.

It provides opportunities for people to engage in a sport, that’s available for people from birth through to their hundreds. We have a number of people who are no longer playing who love to come and have a cup of tea and enjoy the social interaction.

I think it’s really important in that regard.

PAUL FARRELL, REPORTER: Castlemaine Bowling Club wants to expand what it can offer members in the regional city north of Melbourne.

PETER WILLIAMS:  We’re trying to recruit people from the community and the feedback we got from people who’d be keen is that if we could offer a program say starting at 7:30, they could spare a couple of hours in the twilights with lights.

PAUL FARRELL:  But the club doesn’t have outdoor lights. In 2018, it put in a modest application to Sport Australia for one of the government’s Community Infrastructure Grants.

PETER WILLIAMS: The proposed lighting for our green was going to be a $100,000 plus. So, we devised a program that we’d use existing poles, modify the lighting and we could do one that would suit one of our greens for 40,000.

I must admit, we were optimistic that we might be successful. Our intention is that we can suspend the lighting from those poles.

PAUL FARRELL: Last year, they were devastated to learn their application was unsuccessful.

PETER WILLIAMS: I have to say the club, me personally but the club were extremely disappointed to miss out on those funds because it was going to offer so much for our community.

PAUL FARRELL:  The club is one of hundreds across the country now questioning how it missed out.

Last week, a bombshell report by the Australian National Audit Office revealed Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie overruled some of the recommendations made by Sport Australia and adopted a parallel process that favoured some marginal Coalition electorates in the lead-up to the 2019 election.

The report found scores of clubs highly regarded by Sport Australia missed out on funding.

COALITION MP:  I’m delighted to announce a $147,000 federal sports infrastructure grant to help with disability access…

PAUL FARRELL:  Some of the successful clubs granted were announced by Coalition MPs and ministers during the election campaign.

They included a $500,000 grant for Mosman Rowing club announced by Tony Abbott. And a grant of $200,000 to the Lilli Pilli Football Club which was praised by the Prime Minister.

SCOTT MORRISON:  It was our great thrill, as a Commonwealth Government, to back that in with further 200,000 in support through Sports Infrastructure Grants Program.

ANTHONY WHEALY QC, FMR SUPREME COURT JUDGE:  The Prime Minister and others have said, “It’s wonderful for the communities that got these awards, very good for our communities,” indeed it is.

What about those who missed out? It’s calamitous for them. Little comfort for them to hear that sort of argument.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE, SPORTS MINISTER:  Every single one of those 684 projects that were funded was eligible for funding under the guidelines.

PAUL FARRELL:  Bridget McKenzie maintained that she’s broken no rules and the Prime Minister is standing behind her.

SCOTT MORRISON:  Now, I stress that Sports Australia cut the cheques and authorised then those payments based on the decisions that were taken, which were done in accordance with the rules.

BILL SHORTEN:  What he is doing by defending McKenzie is endorsing McKenzie and endorsing the whole train of events.

PAUL FARRELL:  Former New South Wales Court of Appeal Judge Anthony Whealy, says this episode raises serious integrity concerns.

ANTHONY WHEALY QC:  Those who, on the merits deserved the grants, didn’t get them. The process was informed, not by impartiality but by a desire to improve the Coalition’s chances at the election.

Any way you look at it, that must be regarded as an abuse of process.

PAUL FARRELL:  The minister insists she did nothing wrong.

BRIDGET MCKENZIE:  This highly popular and successful program, by the ANAO report’s own words, no rules were broken.

PAUL FARRELL:  We spoke with other sporting clubs off camera who applied for the grants but missed out. Many are reluctant to speak publicly. They fear doing so could jeopardise future funding opportunities.

ANTHONY WHEALY QC:  If you come forward and complain now, then you would immediately suspect that you’ll be on a black list and you’ll never get that money.

If you keep quiet, maybe you’ll get it next time but that’s a very sorry state of affairs too, isn’t it?

PETER WILLIAMS:  I’m just shocked, really, that the process has been abused in such a way.

PAUL FARRELL:  Paul Williams at the Castlemaine Bowling Club just wants a straight answer from the Government.

PETER WILLIAMS:  We tried to get feedback on our application and we’ve been told that feedback’s unavailable. It would be a great thing to find out where we rated because, as I said, we tried to get feedback, A: to find out why we missed but also to help us in future applications.