Grants worth $700,000 handed out in controversial sports program

Grants worth a total of $700,000 were handed out in Macquarie in the run-up to last year's election under the Federal Government's controversial Community Sport Infrastructure Program.

Then-Macquarie Liberal candidate and Hawkesbury councillor, Sarah Richards, announced $200,000 in grants respectively for upgrades to Pitt Town & Districts Sports Club and the construction of new stables at Hawkesbury Showground in April last year, and a further $200,000 for two projects at Lapstone and Wentworth Falls in February.

Flashback: Then-Liberal Macquarie candidate Sarah Richards and Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie with HDAA president Ross Matheson at the Clarendon funding announcement in April 2019. Picture: Sarah Falson.

Flashback: Then-Liberal Macquarie candidate Sarah Richards and Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie with HDAA president Ross Matheson at the Clarendon funding announcement in April 2019. Picture: Sarah Falson.

Liberal Senator for Western Sydney, Marise Payne, had previously announced $100,000 for upgrades to Richmond's Bensons Lane Sporting Complex clubhouse in December 2018 under the same program.

The grants have come under the spotlight after Australian Auditor-General Grant Hehir stated the awarding of the funding "was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice" in a report last month. Then-sport minister Bridget McKenzie came under fire over the grants, accused of pork-barrelling ahead of the election. She resigned from the ministry on Sunday.

Cr Richards responded saying she was "pleased that the Morrison Government supported a number of community and sporting grassroots organisations across the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury, with each one making a measurable positive difference.

"Additionally, as a sitting councillor on the Hawkesbury Sports Council, I appreciate the value that sport plays in improving health and well being," she stated. "Funding for Bensons Lane was awarded before I was endorsed as the federal candidate for the electorate of Macquarie."

Cr Richards did not address the Gazette's questions on whether she supported Prime Minister Scott Morrison's inquiry into the issue, or whether Macquarie was targeted for funding.

When asked by the Gazette what the respective scores were for each of the approved local projects and how many applications were submitted from the electorate, Senator Payne said "questions regarding the operation of the grant program should be referred to Sport Australia".

As the Liberal Senator for Western Sydney, Senator Payne said she had an "association with many grassroots community and sporting organisations across Western Sydney, including in the Hawkesbury".

Mr Hehir's report stated "the successful applications were not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious in terms of the published program guidelines".

The $100 million program was established in 2018 and is administered by Sport Australia, which assessed applications "largely in accordance with the published program guidelines", the report stated.

"In parallel, the Minister's office had commenced its own assessment process to identify which applications should be awarded funding," the report stated. "The Minister's office drew upon considerations other than those identified in the program guidelines, such as the location of the projects, and also applied considerations that were inconsistent with the published guidelines.

"It was this assessment process that predominantly informed the Minister's funding decisions ..."