Morrison misled parliament by claiming all sports grants projects were eligible, Labor says

By Paul Karp

Anthony Albanese has accused Scott Morrison of personal involvement in the Coalition’s controversial $100m sports grant program and misleading parliament by claiming that all projects funded were eligible.

The Labor leader cited evidence from the Australian National Audit Office on Thursday evening that in fact 43% of projects, 290 in total, were ineligible for the community sport infrastructure grant program when agreements were signed.

The evidence stunned the Morrison government, which had relied on the ANAO’s conclusion that “no applications assessed as ineligible were awarded grant funding” to defend the program, only to discover at the Senate inquiry hearing that statement referred only to the point in time projects were assessed by Sport Australia and not their current status.

ANAO officials also revealed the prime minister’s office made “direct” representations about which projects to fund, including the exchange of dozens of emails with the former sport minister Bridget McKenzie’s office and several versions of controversial spreadsheets that colour-coded projects by electorate and party.

On Friday, Albanese told reporters in Sydney that Morrison had said 18 times – including in the parliament – that all projects were eligible.

In press conferences and interviews in the past month, Morrison has variously said that “the auditor general found that there were no ineligible projects”, “there [were] no issues about ineligibility of any projects” and “there were no ineligible projects that were funded under this scheme”.

“They were all eligible projects,” Morrison told the House of Representatives on 5 February.

Albanese said “in fact” that 43% of projects were not eligible, suggesting Morrison is “loose with the truth” and had attempted to use “marketing and spin” to solve a political problem.

“He has misled the Australian people. He has also misled the parliament, yet again. And he will have to correct the record when parliament resumes in a week’s time.”

Although the ANAO found in its report, published in January, that “no applications assessed as ineligible [by Sport Australia] were awarded grant funding”, ANAO officials revealed on Thursday that some 290 projects subsequently became ineligible.

The majority of these (272) were ineligible because work had started by the time agreements were signed, a result of the community sport infrastructure grant program being extended to a second and third round months before the 2019 federal election.

The Coalition senators Matt Canavan and Eric Abetz were stunned by the ANAO officials’ evidence on Thursday, seeking to confirm that no ineligible projects were funded only to be contradicted by Brian Boyd, the ANAO performance audit services group executive director, who replied: “That’s not what we found.”

On Friday, Albanese described the sports grants program as “a scandal of massive proportions” both because of the number of ineligible projects funded and because volunteers in community sporting organisations had spent “hundreds of hours putting forward submissions to a scheme that they thought would be funded on the basis of merit and we now know it was all about politics”.

In its scathing report the ANAO found the $100m community sport infrastructure fund was targeted at marginal or Coalition target electorates, eventually prompting McKenzie to resign on 2 February over a conflict of interest in one grant.

Albanese seized on revelations that dozens of emails were exchanged between Morrison and McKenzie’s offices about the program.

“No wonder it took them so long to sack Bridget McKenzie because, quite clearly, Scott Morrison was in this right up to his neck,” he said.

On Thursday the auditor general, Grant Hehir, said that although Morrison’s office made both direct and indirect representations about which projects should be funded, not all representations changed the outcome of funding decisions.

The ANAO did not find sufficient correlation between representations and an outcome to make it a focus of the audit.

“The evidence before us was that the minister [Bridget McKenzie] was the decision-maker,” he said. “If we had have identified someone else as the decision-maker, we would have gone down that path.”

On Thursday, Morrison was caught by surprise by the new evidence, telling reporters at a press conference to discuss the coronavirus that he hadn’t seen the ANAO statement.

On Friday, a government spokesman reiterated that even at the hearing the ANAO officials had confirmed that “no applications assessed as ineligible were awarded grant funding”.

Earlier, Albanese dismissed the relevance of mere “eligibility”, arguing it is “spin” that does not mean the most meritorious projects won funding.

“I am eligible to play Davis Cup for Australia. I play for Marrickville lawn tennis club … I am in division two, grade five,” he said.

“So chances are there are tens of thousands of players who are better suited to play Davis Cup rather than me.”