The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed on Wednesday Senator McKenzie had given the Wangaratta Clay Target Club $35,980 a month after joining as what the club called a “full fee paying member”.
A spokeswoman for Senator McKenzie, now Agriculture Minister, said on Tuesday night that, as the Wangaratta Clay Target Club membership was a “gift” in January 2019 and valued at less than $300, a declaration to the Senate was “unnecessary”.
“Round-two funding became available in December 2018 at MYEFO and funding decisions were made from that time,” the spokeswoman said.
But in a video of her press conference on the day she announced the funding in February last year, the Nationals deputy leader told reporters in Wangaratta she had joined the club “a couple of weeks ago”.
The Nine News footage casts doubt on Senator McKenzie’s claims this week the decision to fund the Wangaratta Clay Target Club under the contentious Community Sports Infrastructure Grant was already underway prior to her becoming a member.
“When the club came to me when I joined up as its member a couple of weeks ago and showed me the facilities and amenities that this club had I knew it was something that our government had to support,” Senator McKenzie said at the announcement in February 2019.
The Nationals deputy leader is engulfed in a growing controversy surrounding a $100 million federal government “slush fund”, which a damning audit last week revealed was used to splash cash at marginal electorates ahead of last year’s federal election.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said on Wednesday revelations that she oversaw funding to a shooting club of which she was a member “fails every test” and she has to resign.
“This is just red hot. This is just a rort. It fails the pub test. It fails every test,” he told Adelaide radio station FIVEaa.
“If [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison doesn’t take action here, this goes to fundamental integrity and faith in politics.
“A whole lot of grants … were given to some clubs, and I’m sure that many of them are worthwhile, but the problem is that, in order to get those grants, clubs that should have received the money, that in good faith went through processes, spent hundreds of hours doing applications, getting close, they missed out.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg defended his cabinet colleague on Wednesday morning.
“Grants right across the electorate, for Labor and Liberal members, and National Party members alike, applied through the proper processes, received the grants, they were all eligible and the money is being well spent,” Mr Frydenberg told 2GB radio.
Health Minister Greg Hunt defended the controversial sports grants program and the right of government MPs to lobby for sporting groups in their communities.
“The effect of Senator McKenzie’s decisions had been to increase the number of grants in ALP seats from 26 to 34 per cent. I think that would surprise most of the people to understand that,” Mr Hunt said.
Many of the grants went to marginal Labor electorates the Coalition was hoping to win at last year’s federal election.
On February 25 last year, Senator McKenzie announced $35,980 for the Wangaratta Clay Target Club from the Community Sports Infrastructure Grant program to assist with the installation of new toilets and amenities.
A month earlier, the club announced on its website that Senator McKenzie had visited the club on January 25, which was “her second visit in recent months”.
She made the funding announcement alongside Nationals candidate Mark Byatt who was contesting the seat of Indi in Victoria’s north-east, then held by independent MP Cathy McGowan.
“Not many gun clubs can claim federal ministers amongst their membership, but the Wangaratta Clay Target Club now can,” the club’s announcement said.
“While here to talk to the committee, Bridget signed up to our club as a full fee-paying member. She is moving her electorate office to our region and chose our club to show her support for the work we are doing to not only keep the club active, but to continually improve all aspects of our operations.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra