Ross Vasta says he had ‘no decision-making power over the process or the outcome’ in grant to Belmont Branch of the Sporting Shooters Association

A Liberal MP said that he “secured” a $20,000 grant for a gun club which lists him as its patron, raising questions about whether he should have disclosed his links to the organisation in his register of interests

Backbencher Ross Vasta posted on Facebook in 2018 that he had “secured $20,000” for the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) club in Belmont, a grant that would allow them to lay asphalt over their dirt carpark.

The money was awarded through the Stronger Communities Programme, a grant scheme that relies on MPs identifying applicants and inviting them to submit an application following the assessment of a community consultation committee.

The maximum that can be awarded to any single recipient is $20,000, with the final decision being made by a departmental delegate. Vasta’s office told the Guardian that he had “no decision making power over the process”.

There is no suggestion the club was not eligible for the grant it received.

Vasta is listed on the SSAA’s website as the patron of the Belmont club.

In 2021 he told Australian Shooter, the SSAA’s publication, that he joined the Belmont club at the age of 12. The article described him as an “SSAA member”. It is not known whether Vasta was a member at the time of the grant in 2018.

“I’ve always had a passion for shooting. When I became federal member for Bonner, I found it such an honour and was so happy to be a patron of SSAA Belmont, the club I joined when I was only 12,” he told the publication.

Vasta’s interests register does not list his patronage of the Belmont club or any membership of the SSAA.

MPs are asked to disclose “membership of any organisation where a conflict of interest with a Member’s public duty could foreseeably arise or be seen to arise” or any “other interests where a conflict of interest with a Member’s public duties could foreseeably arise or be seen to arise”.

However the explanatory notes for the declarations form say: “Generally it would be expected that membership of a local community, sporting or charitable organisation would not pose or be seen to pose a potential conflict of interest.”

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Nevertheless, it is common practice for MPs to list their patronage of community groups, sporting clubs, or other organisations. A Guardian analysis of 150 published pecuniary interests for the lower house shows 46 MPs declared patronages of community groups or clubs. That includes three of Vasta’s Coalition colleagues who declared patronage of gun or clay target clubs: Andrew Gee, Andrew Hastie, and Keith Pitt.

Terri Butler, the outgoing Labor MP, also disclosed her vice-patronage of the Queensland rifle association.

Former leader Scott Morrison and deputy party leader Josh Frydenberg took steps to declare patronages, both declaring a large number of sporting clubs and community groups they were associated with.

In response to a series of questions about the grant, Vasta’s spokesperson said: “As you are probably aware, all of the Stronger Communities grants in Bonner have gone through an independent committee.

“Mr Vasta has no decision-making power over the process or the outcome. This is to ensure there is no conflict of interest and that these decisions are made on merit only.”

Follow-up questions about Vasta’s interests register were not answered.

Centre for Public Integrity chair Anthony Whealy, a retired NSW supreme court judge, said disclosing patronages was “common practice” across the parliament.

“Even if he’s not a member, strictly speaking, under the final clause – ‘any other interest where a conflict of interest could arise, or be seen to arise’ – I think it would apply anyway to someone who is a patron of a club,” Whealy said.

The SSAA makes it clear publicly that Vasta is a supporter of both shooting and the Belmont club.

He is named as one of four supporters on an SSAA list of political allies and detractors.

“Ross is patron of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia at Belmont in Queensland, Vice-Patron of many of the clubs situated within his electorate and is very proud to represent the thousands of members within these clubs,” the website said.

“Ross has worked with SSAA Belmont to advocate for and deliver $20,000 worth of funding for the upgrade of the Belmont club’s carpark to support the growing club and its members and will continue to work with them in the future.”

The Stronger Communities program distributes $150,000 to each of Australia’s 151 federal electorates for the vague goal of “delivering social benefits”.

Applicants are identified by local MPs and external community consultation committees, and then invited to submit an application. Only invited organisations are eligible for the grants, according to the program guidelines.

The identified projects must be consistent with the intended program outcomes and criteria. MPs are expected to advise the infrastructure department on the basis for the selected projects and give a detailed list of nominated applicants and projects.

A maximum of 20 projects are funded in each electorate, receiving between $2,500 and $20,000.

Written by Christopher Knaus. Originally published in the Guardian on 28 June 2022.