By Katrina Curtis, originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald on the 12th of February 2021.
Former minister Bridget McKenzie doesn’t know who in her office changed a list of sports club projects receiving taxpayer money after she signed off on it and wouldn’t tell a parliamentary inquiry whether she had tried to find out.
The Nationals senator fronted a fiery hearing of a committee inquiry into the sports grants scandal, getting upset when Greens senator Janet Rice said the evidence was the scheme had been rorted.
Senator McKenzie also insisted she had never seen talking points one of her ministerial advisers prepared, which analysed how many more projects could be funded in Coalition marginal and targeted seats if the program was increased from $30 million to $100 million.
A scathing Australian National Audit Office report released in January last year found the Community Sport Infrastructure Grants program deviated from a merit-based assessment conducted by Sport Australia in favour of a parallel process run out of the minister’s office that resulted in more grants going to marginal seats.
Senator McKenzie signed a brief on April 4, 2019 with an attached list of projects to be funded. An altered list was sent to Sports Australia a week later with nine projects added and one removed, just as the government went into caretaker mode when the election was called.
On Friday, Senator McKenzie said she only found out the list had been changed when it was revealed in a Senate hearing in March 2020, more than a month after she had resigned as minister for failing to declare membership of a gun club that received a grant.
“After I signed the round three approval brief, I got on a plane for Adelaide and Western Australia and I didn’t return to Canberra for many weeks as the election campaign started while I was over there,” she said. “I put it in my out tray and headed out the door.
“I completely reject that the exercise of my ministerial discretion resulted in the negative politicisation of the program.”
She insisted that it was someone in her office who had made the changes, ruling out the possibility it was Prime Minister Scott Morrison or his office.
“I can’t identify a specific person but I categorically know that that change was made within my office,” she said.
Senator Rice asked whether she’d “had no curiosity since about who did it” and contacted former staff to find out.
“They no longer work for the government,” Senator McKenzie replied. “I take responsibility for the decisions made.”
The senator said she had never seen talking points prepared and printed by a staffer ahead of a meeting with Mr Morrison to ask for more money in the scheme. They showed how it could aid marginal seats in the looming election.
She was asked if her adviser used the talking points when briefing her. “I can’t recall,” she replied.
Labor senator Anthony Chisholm asked: “How can you say that when you don’t know what was the content of the document?”
“Because I know what happened in the meeting … We discussed how popular the program was, ‘could I have some more money please’, ‘yes you can’. That’s a summary,” Senator McKenzie said in response.
Senator Rice accused the former minister of being incompetent if she had no idea her staff were spending hours “preparing information that was basically going to be critical to the rorting of this scheme for hundreds of millions of dollars”.
“I’m happy to say the evidence to us that the scheme was rorted,” Senator Rice said.
Senator McKenzie demanded the Green withdraw the accusation: “That word is not mentioned in the audit report. It’s an unfair characterisation, it’s unparliamentary.”