Former minister Bridget McKenzie says she didn’t know last-minute changes were made to a list of projects for which she approved funding under the controversial sport grants program.
Senate committees heard this week her office sent Sport Australia a changed spreadsheet – adding nine projects worth $3.3 million – three hours after initially sending the body in charge of the program her authorisation.
The auditor-general told senators its investigation showed the list of projects in the third round changed twice after it was initially sent to Sport Australia on 11 April.
Senator McKenzie’s office communicated with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office during that day.
In a statement issued late on Thursday, Senator McKenzie said she only became aware of these changes through the estimates committee processes.
She said the original brief she signed on 4 April – a week before it was sent to Sport Australia – did include the nine new projects among others funded in the third round of grants.
“I did not make any changes or annotations to this brief or its attachments after 4 April 2019,” she said in the statement.
“My expectation was that the brief would be processed in a timely and appropriate manner.
“Nevertheless, changes were made and administrative errors occurred in processing the brief.”
Sport Australia chief operating officer Luke McCann said the senator’s office told the organisation there had been errors in the original spreadsheet.
He didn’t believe it was usual for attachments to decision briefs to change but said the same thing had occurred earlier in the first grants round.
Senator McKenzie – who resigned over an undisclosed conflict of interest related to the same grants program – said she had always taken responsibility for her actions and those of her office.
“I was the Minister for Sport and therefore ultimately and entirely responsible for funding decisions that were signed off under my name, including and regrettably, any changes that were made unbeknown to me.”
The auditor-general has criticised the minister’s office for using the $100 million program to funnel money into marginal coalition seats or those it targeted during the 2019 election.
It found nearly three-quarters of the grants approved were not recommended by Sport Australia’s merit-based assessment process.
Senator McKenzie said she made no apology for using her ministerial discretion and it was unfortunate to see the program being undermined.