Scott Morrison has attempted to step around evidence to the Senate inquiry probing the sports rorts controversy by asserting grants were approved by Bridget McKenzie on 4 April – days before before the parliament was dissolved for the 2019 election.
The Australian National Audit Office has told the Senate inquiry, in answers to questions on notice, that McKenzie, the former sports minister, wrote to the prime minister on 10 April attaching spreadsheets of projects she intended to fund, summarised by state, political party and electorate. She then provided the signed approval brief, which was dated 4 April, to Sport Australia on 11 April.
Sport Australia told the Senate inquiry on Thursday it received the final list of projects from the minister’s office 17 minutes after the government entered the caretaker period last April, and one day after it was sent to the prime minister’s office.
The prime minister was asked by the ABC on Friday morning about the breach of the caretaker convention. Morrison was asked why the grants weren’t approved until after parliament had been prorogued for the election.
Morrison replied: “That’s not true … that’s not actually true.”
“[The committee] heard it was authorised on the 4th of April 2019. That’s what the testimony from Sports Australia was. It was signed on the 4th of April 2019 – that was the authorisation of the brief that went on that matter. So the suggestion it was signed at some time later, there is no basis for that.”
After officials gave evidence to the Senate committee on Thursday, Labor pointed out in parliament that the date sequence of the government’s decision-making was strange.
In question time, Anthony Albanese suggested the fact the brief was dated and signed 4 April was inconsistent with McKenzie then going on to seek Morrison’s feedback on 10 April.
Albanese asked Morrison: “If you weren’t in charge, why was the minister asking for your permission?”
Morrison responded that McKenzie, as sports minister, was the decision-maker. “There was no authorisation provided by me as prime minister on the projects,” he said.
The prime minister rejected Labor’s assertion that the authority had been “backdated” to 4 April. “The testimony today from Sport Australia was that they received a brief from senator McKenzie dated 4 April 2019.”
On Friday, Morrison appeared to argue there was no breach of the caretaker convention because the decision was taken on April 4 – even though the evidence to the Senate inquiry was that officials were sent the authorised brief after the proroguing of the parliament.
This week, the ANAO revealed Morrison’s office exchanged 136 emails with McKenzie’s office about the community sport infrastructure grant program. The ANAO has suggested that although Morrison’s office made both direct and indirect representations about which project to fund, there was not sufficient correlation with final decisions to conclude that anyone other than McKenzie decided on grants.
On Friday, Morrison was also asked to respond to evidence from Sport Australia officials that the agency warned the government in emails against politicising the grants process.
The Sport Australia chair, John Wylie, said it had demonstrated “due stewardship” of the $100m program by raising risks with McKenzie’s office. But Wylie said it was her prerogative to fund different projects as she was the ultimate decision-maker.
Luke McCann, Sport Australia’s chief operating officer, cited two instances when Robin O’Neill, the head of the infrastructure branch, warned McKenzie about the approval process on 5 December 2018 and again on 5 March 2019 when the minister’s office asked for blank application forms after the application process had closed.
The prime minister on Friday attempted to step around that issue. “I’m not sure what you are referring to,” Morrison told the ABC. “The government made decisions, through the sports minister, to award grants to a range of projects around the country and the government announced them.”