OUTRAGED Hunter and Central Coast federal MPs are demanding the sacking of former sports minister Bridget McKenzie over a sports funding scandal that poured more than $2 million dollars into the regions' two Coalition seats but left Labor-held seats like Paterson with just $167,000.
Nationals MP for Lyne, David Gillespie, and Liberal MP for Robertson, Lucy Wicks, each notched up more than $1 million in grants to their electorates under the $100 million national Community Sports Infrastructure Program that was savaged by the Australian National Audit Office last week because of pork-barrelling overseen by Senator McKenzie and her office.
Paterson received $167,000, while Labor's Shortland received $277,113, Hunter $354,195, Dobell $415,000 and Newcastle $554,326. The Coalition seats of Lyne received $1.012 million and Robertson, $1.09 million.
The five Hunter and Central Coast seats shared $1.767 million dollars under the Morrison Government program while the two Coalition seats received more than $2.1 million.
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson said it was "inexcusable" that Senator McKenzie "disregarded hundreds of applications from grassroot sporting clubs" in a case that showed the need for a federal commission against corruption, while Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon blasted Scott Morrison for not sacking Senator McKenzie, and accused the prime minister of being "in on it up to his eyeballs".
"Scott Morrison, who has been deafening in his silence on this issue, has to take responsibility and his first act has to be to sack Bridget MacKenzie. The minister has to be held accountable. Ministers have been sacked for much less than this," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
"It's very very clear electorates have been punished for having the temerity not to vote for the Coalition."
Questions about the program extend beyond the timing and distribution of money to the Hunter and Central Coast seats to include why at least one Labor MP - Ms Swanson - was not advised of the program, and why Liberal candidates rather than sitting Labor MPs announced grants in Paterson and Dobell shortly before the May, 2019 federal election.
The National Audit Office launched its investigation of the program after a Labor complaint in 2019 when Liberal candidate for Mayo in South Australia, Georgina Downer, presented one of the program's grants to a bowling club rather than the sitting MP, in a tight race for the seat just before the federal election.
There are also questions about why Port Stephens Council and Central Coast Council received some of the highest grants available under the program, for projects in Lyne and Robertson, including grants in the controversial third round of funding in early 2019.
The National Audit Office found 73 per cent of third round projects were not recommended for funding by Sport Australia before they were referred to Senator McKenzie's office.
Port Stephens Council received $496,214 for sports facilities at Karuah, in the seat of Lyne and close to the council's northern border, which was announced by Mr Gillespie only two weeks before the May federal election.
In film taken at the Lionel Morten Oval clubhouse a week before the election Mr Gillespie said he was "straight back to Bridget" after the Karuah project missed out on funding under the program's first round, to argue that "we've got to get more money for this program".
"They got a second tranche of money. They didn't open it up again, we just went to the next one, which was Karuah," Mr Gillespie said.
Central Coast Council received $785,000 for three grants in the second and third rounds of the program, with second round funding of $150,000 for a Kanwal oval project in the seat of Dobell, and $485,000 for an oval upgrade and facilities at the beachside resort village of Avoca, in the seat of Robertson.
The council received an additional $150,000 in the third round for an oval upgrade at Bateau Bay in Dobell.
Central Coast Council did not respond to questions about why it recorded the $150,000 Kanwal project, approved in late 2018, in a regular quarterly report in the council business paper in July, 2019 but not the $485,000 Robertson project that was approved at the same time, or the second project in Dobell.
The only other projects funded in Robertson were two separate grants to Southern Ettalong Football Club of $120,000 in round one, and $488,000 in round three.
Port Stephens mayor Ryan Palmer did not respond to Newcastle Herald questions about whether his council applied for any other grants under the program than the Karuah project.
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, whose seat covers much of the Port Stephens Council area, was not advised of the program, despite MPs traditionally receiving letters from the minister outlining particular grants and how people can apply.
Paterson received $125,500 for Medowie Netball Club in round two, and $16,500 for Kurri Kurri Tennis Club and $25,000 for Tilligerry Community Association in round three.
The Tilligerry funding was reported as a federal election campaign "commitment" by Ms Swanson's Liberal opponent only a week before the election, rather than a federal grant that had already been approved. Ms Swanson was not advised of the approval.
Unsuccessful applicants in Paterson included Cessnock Council, which sought $396,000 for major upgrade works at Kurri Kurri central oval that it estimated would have benefited at least 750 per week.
Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent said grants were vital to regional councils and "I'd hate to think that politics was involved in the reason we missed out".
On December 14, 2018 the Maitland Mercury carried a report in which Lyne MP David Gillespie announced a maximum $500,000 Community Sports Infrastructure grant to Maitland Rugby Union Football Club at Lorn, on the southern edge of his electorate.
Although a majority of people using facilities at Marcellin Park are likely to live in the seat of Paterson, it was Mr Gillespie who claimed credit for a "federal National and Liberal Government that has prioritised investment in local grassroots sports".
Mr Gillespie also announced a $15,840 grant to Gloucester District Tennis Association in addition to the Lorn and Karuah projects.
In Dobell it was Labor MP Emma McBride's Liberal opponent Jill Pilon who announced a $115,634 Community Sports Infrastructure grant to Shelly Beach Golf Club.
"As the sitting Member for Dobell during all three rounds of the program my office, like many others around the country, was not kept appropriately informed by the government in relation to these grants," Ms McBride said.
"Many community sports clubs on the coast never had a fair chance of receiving grants under the program. The Auditor-General's report made it clear that Senator McKenzie rejected hundreds of applications assessed as having the most merit. That grant funding was skewed towards marginal seats the government was fighting to hold or to win, which appears to be what has happened on the Central Coast."
Lucy Wicks, in the neighbouring Central Coast seat of Robertson, said she was "pleased to advocate for all community groups that apply for government funding" and the successful projects "are a credit to the organisations behind them".
The seat of Hunter received grants of $4260 for Muswellbrook Little Athletics, $19,425 for Muswellbrook and District Junior Rugby League, $134,210 for Singleton PCYC and $196,300 to Singleton Council for a skate park at Broke.
Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon said the sports rort was the action of a party that "was sure it was about to lose the election and therefore didn't believe they'd ever be held accountable".
Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon's seat received $554,326. In the first round Bar Beach Tennis Club received $197,000, in the second round Maryland Fletcher Football Club at Wallsend received $100,000, and in the third round Merewether Carlton Rugby Union Club received $200,000 and Newcastle District Tennis Association received $57,326.
Shortland MP Pat Conroy's seat received the second lowest allocation in the Hunter and Central Coast of $277,113. Lake Macquarie PCYC received $104,624 in the first round, Charlestown District Cricket Club received $127,489 in the second round, and Lake Macquarie Dockers AFC received $45,000 in round three.
Sport Australia, which assessed the more than 2000 applications for funding under the program and made recommendations to Senator McKenzie, has also been criticised for its public statements about the program's success.
On Monday Mr Morrison backed Senator McKenzie but avoided questions about whether his office had any role in the allocation of money to target marginal seats.
The Australian National Audit Office said it was "not evident to the ANAO what the legal authority was" for Senator McKenzie to approve grants.
Ms Swanson said the ANAO's scathing report provided even more proof of the need for an independent commission against corruption, after a former senior Victorian judge slammed the Morrison government's proposed commission which would not be able to investigate the sports rort under its current terms.
"If members of the government think they can get away with pork barrelling, they'll continue to do it," Ms Swanson said.