Senator McKenzie signed a brief on April 4, 2019 with an attached list of projects to be funded. An altered list was sent to Sports Australia a week later with nine projects added and one removed, just as the government went into caretaker mode when the election was called.
On Friday, Senator McKenzie said she only found out the list had been changed when it was revealed in a Senate hearing in March 2020, more than a month after she had resigned as minister for failing to declare membership of a gun club that received a grant.
“After I signed the round three approval brief, I got on a plane for Adelaide and Western Australia and I didn’t return to Canberra for many weeks as the election campaign started while I was over there,” she said. “I put it in my out tray and headed out the door.
“I completely reject that the exercise of my ministerial discretion resulted in the negative politicisation of the program.”
She insisted that it was someone in her office who had made the changes, ruling out the possibility it was Prime Minister Scott Morrison or his office.
“I can’t identify a specific person but I categorically know that that change was made within my office,” she said.
Senator Rice asked whether she’d “had no curiosity since about who did it” and contacted former staff to find out.
“They no longer work for the government,” Senator McKenzie replied. “I take responsibility for the decisions made.”
The senator said she had never seen talking points prepared and printed by a staffer ahead of a meeting with Mr Morrison to ask for more money in the scheme. They showed how it could aid marginal seats in the looming election
She was asked if her adviser used the talking points when briefing her. “I can’t recall,” she replied.
Labor senator Anthony Chisholm asked: “How can you say that when you don’t know what was the content of the document?”
“Because I know what happened in the meeting … We discussed how popular the program was, ‘could I have some more money please’, ‘yes you can’. That’s a summary,” Senator McKenzie said in response.
Senator Rice accused the former minister of being incompetent if she had no idea her staff were spending hours “preparing information that was basically going to be critical to the rorting of this scheme for hundreds of millions of dollars”.
“I’m happy to say the evidence to us that the scheme was rorted,” Senator Rice said.
Senator McKenzie demanded the Green withdraw the accusation: “That word is not mentioned in the audit report. It’s an unfair characterisation, it’s unparliamentary.”
Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.