Cowper MP Pat Conaghan has emphatically rejected any suggestion the number of sporting grants handed out in the electorate before the election, under the controversial Community Sports Infrastructure Program, was because it was a marginal seat.
The $100 million sports grants program was set up in 2018 to ensure more Australians had access to quality sporting facilities.
The timing of the grants came in the months leading up to the 2019 election.
Last week the Auditor-General Grant Hehir delivered a scathing report into the program, raising questions about legality and bias.
The Auditor-General concluded then sports minister Bridget McKenzie "drew upon considerations other than those identified in the program guidelines, such as the location of 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, rather than Sport Australia's process," Mr Hehir said.
They owe an apology and an explanation to the hundreds of organisations that applied for grants in good faith..Don Farrell
Labor shadow minister for sport Don Farrell told The Port News Senator McKenzie "ignored the published criteria, and opted for industrial scale pork-barrelling".
"They owe an apology and an explanation to the hundreds of organisations that applied for grants in good faith only to learn that their applications were rejected because they weren't on Scott Morrison's list of target seats," Senator Farrell said.
Seven sportings grants were allocated in Cowper, all in the northern part of the electorate. Those were:
- Coffs Harbour City Council, $400 000
- Northern Storm Football and Sports Club, $25, 000
- Nambucca Shire Council, $178, 379
- Hockey Coffs Coast, $200,000
- Sawtell Bowling and Recreation Club, $21, 042
- Sawtell/Toormina Australian Football Club, $137, 530
- Urunga Cricket Club, $33,000
It has funded several great upgrades of sporting facilities across Cowper.Pat Conaghan
Cowper is a marginal seat, before the May 2019 election the Nationals held it by a slim margin ( 4.5%). The neighboring electorate of Lyne, on a safer margin of 11.6 per cent , only received three sporting grants.
Cowper was considered vulnerable due to the retirement of long-serving National Party member Luke Hartsuyker, unrest over the handling of the Coffs Harbour bypass and a double-digit youth unemployment rate in Coffs Harbour.
Before the election, the Prime Minister described the seat as "line-ball" and "critical" to a Coalition victory during a visit to Port Macquarie on May 9.
After the election NSW state director Ross Cadell told The Port News Cowper was "everything" to the party.
"To the NSW Nationals Cowper was everything for us, that was reflected in myself, my deputy and 80 per cent of our head office staff in Cowper for the last few days," he said.
Cowper MP Pat Conaghan rejected any assertion sporting grants were linked to the election, and the northern part of the electorate was targeted because support for the Nats was considered soft.
"I think it is fanciful, with an electorate the size of Cowper with 125,000 constituents, media commentators are suggesting funding seven sports projects influenced the outcome of the May 2019 election," he said.
"I believe people had bigger issues on their mind such as jobs, our regional economy and protecting retirees and the elderly."
Mr Conaghan described the sports program as a "positive program".
"It has funded several great upgrades of sporting facilities across Cowper," he said.
"Projects like providing a women's change room at the Macksville Park Club House so that girls and women can get changed into sportswear in the safety and privacy of female amenities, rather than in their cars."
He noted the way the program was administrated was now the subject of an investigation.
Mr Conaghan also defended embattled Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie, pledging his "support" for her while the investigation was undertaken.
"In Australia people are always afforded the presumption of being innocent until proven guilty and this is the right I am affording my colleague," he said.
On Wednesday January 22, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred Senator McKenzie's handling of the $100m sports grants program to his department to investigate whether ministerial standards were breached.
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