A Facebook post from a soccer club in Scott Morrison electorate has dragged the Prime Minister into growing scandal about sports funding.
In August last year newly elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison triumphantly opened an upgrade to his local soccer club worth around $1 million.
But questions have been raised about federal funding allocated to the project, as well as many others around the country, after an auditor-general report found 73 per cent of the projects approved as part of the $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure grants program were not recommended by Sport Australia.
One expert believes the grants program may be unconstitutional and leading law firm Slater and Gordon is investigating a class action on behalf of those clubs who missed out on funding because Deputy Nationals Leader Bridget McKenzie applied her own decision-making criteria to overrule the merit-based assessments made by Sport Australia.
There are also allegations Mr Morrison’s local soccer club boasted about its new clubhouse works more than a month before successful applicants for a sports grant were announced.
Contracts were signed with builders for the upgrade on October 19, 2018 – more than a month before it was publicly announced in December that the club had been successful in getting a $200,000 federal grant.
According to ABC, a Facebook post on October 31, 2018, on the Lilli Pilli Football Club page suggested money to finish the ambitious project was coming so construction would be finished by March or April 2019, even though grant applicants were still being assessed at the time.
Labor spokesman for sport Don Farrell has also raised doubt over the funding saying the Club was not eligible for the federal grant at all.
“The rules were very clear about the guidelines and if you’d commenced your work, as had happened with this particular club … then you weren’t eligible to apply for this grant,” he told ABC.
But a Sport Australia spokesman said it had assessed the Lilli Pilli project as eligible.
“Lilli Pilli Football Club’s application to Sport Australia, submitted in September 2018, related specifically to supporting the fit out of gender neutral change-rooms and a community room,” the spokesman said.
“This project required a separate scope of works from previous upgrades the club had made to its facilities.
“As such, Sport Australia determined this grant application was for a new project.
“Sport Australia notified the club of their successful grant application in December 2018, with work commencing on the project in January 2019.”
The Morrison Government insists every project approved as part of its controversial $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure grants program was eligible for funding.
In a post on its Facebook page yesterday, the club said it had applied for federal funding on September 14, 2018 but explained in its application that it was “committed to start a major project (phase one) at the oval imminently and sought government assistance to fund a second project”.
The post said the club had raised more than $600,000 over 20 years for an upgrade to its clubhouse at Lilli Pilli Oval and also received $210,000 from Sutherland Council for the replacement of public toilets.
Lilli Pilli FC president Greg Storey told ABC that the $200,000 from the federal government was earmarked for works including better changerooms for female players.
It didn’t have funding for this extra work when it signed contracts with builders for the first stage of works on October 19. The Club said the scope at that time excluded the desired change rooms and several community amenities.
The club said it continued to fundraise for the extra works but found out in December it was successful in getting the grant.
“This did lead to a second project and a significant variation of terms with our builder,” the post said.
The club also confirmed it had told local member and Mr Morrison about its application.
But in a statement to ABC, Mr Morrison’s spokesperson said: “At no stage did Scott Morrison or his staff suggest the Club would be successful or even urge them to apply”.
When Mr Morrison personally opened the new facility on August 18 last year, it included a new clubhouse with change rooms, community space, improved security, storage and viewing areas.
CONTROVERSY OVER SPORTS-RORTS
The $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure grants program has been the subject of controversy after findings were released by the auditor-general on January 15 that then-sports minister Bridget McKenzie awarded most of the grants to marginal seats being targeted by the government last year.
The auditor-general found 73 per cent of the projects Senator McKenzie approved were not recommended by Sport Australia.
According to the audit, Senator McKenzie received representations from MPs, including from the Prime Minister’s office, while she was assessing the grant applications.
Labor has called for the now-agriculture minister to resign and pointed to their former sports minister Ros Kelly, who stepped down from the ministry and then parliament in 1995 following a similar affair.
But Senator McKenzie is refusing to apologise and has the support of Mr Morrison, who said no rules were broken despite allegations of pork barrelling – funding sports clubs in marginal seats rather than on merit.
“I endorse ministers running programs that change local communities for the better,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Monday.
He said Sports Australia ultimately signed off on the cheques but the government was taking the auditor-general’s report seriously.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has been tasked with looking at it, although some have pointed out that Mr Porter’s electorate of Pearce received $926,865 in funding from the grants program.
The review could also be limited to assessing whether Ms McKenzie had the legal authority to determine successful grant recipients, SBS News reports.
“The auditor-general made comments concerning the legal basis for ministerial involvement in the relevant process,” Mr Porter told SBS News.
“Given the lack of any conclusive view offered by the auditor-general, the prime minister has sought further consideration of the issue, which I am attending to.”
GRANTS MAY BE UNCONSTITUTIONAL
An eminent legal expert has also suggested the grants program may be unconstitutional.
Professor Anne Twomey said there appeared to be no basis for the scheme and questioned whether the deputy Nationals leader breached the constitution.
“What is astonishing about the latest sports-rorts affair is its brazenness, culminating in the assertion that ‘no rules were broken’,” Ms Twomey said in the Australian Financial Review.
The professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney said from a legal perspective there “seem to be at least three areas” in which rules were broken.
Professor Twomey believes the legal obligation on ministers to behave in a procedurally fair manner, McKenzie’s legal ability to make the decisions, and whether or not she broke the constitution are all in question.
Labor small business spokesman Brendan O’Connor has accused the government of corruption and scolded Mr Morrison for allowing it to happen on his watch.
“There’s no doubt that having looked at what’s been said by the auditor, that we have a problem with the way in which the government has dealt with this matter,” Mr O’Connor told reporters in Melbourne.
“It’s clear that they have politicised and corrupted the process for political gain.
“That has been dismissed this morning by Scott Morrison. But the fact is Scott Morrison clearly would have known the way in which grants were dealt with because he was the campaigner-in-chief for the Liberal party at the last election.”
Leading law firm Slater and Gordon is investigating a class action, arguing tens of millions of dollars in grants was misappropriated.
Senior Nationals MP Darren Chester welcomed the fact the scheme was now under review, saying it was important people were satisfied the grants programs was fair.
“The integrity of the way we deliver these types of programs needs to have the transparency that people can have confidence that a fair system is in place,” Mr Chester told ABC News.
“Because people need to have confidence when they make a bid for a program.
“There have been great deliveries under this program. The question is whether the decisions were based upon merit.”
Former NSW auditor-general Tony Harris said if the program had come across his desk he would have referred it to the state’s anti-corruption commission.
“I would be obliged to advise the Independent Commission Against Corruption about the matter,” Mr Harris told the ABC.
“I would expect them to have an inquiry into the matter.”
Original source: News