Scott Morrison has dug in over the sports rorts affair, insisting his office hasn’t been involved in any cover-up despite his current sport minister revealing prime ministerial staff discussed evidence to be given to parliament.
Sport Australia has admitted it gave a Senate committee the wrong evidence about the timing of the final decision on the controversial $100 million grants program that funnelled money into projects on coalition-targeted seats during the May election.
Chief operating officer Luke McCann told senators on Wednesday he had told Sport Minister Richard Colbeck as much when they met on Tuesday to prepare for the next day’s estimates hearing.
Senator Colbeck discussed the same issue when two of Mr Morrison’s staff visited him later on Tuesday evening.
At issue is the timing of when then-sport minister Bridget McKenzie gave the sign off for the final round of grants.
Under the caretaker conventions, governments are not supposed to make major decisions during an election period.
Sport Australia originally said Senator McKenzie sent it the final list of projects for funding on April 11, about 20 minutes after the election was called.
But the audit office told senators that list changed more than three hours later and a second final version was sent to Sport Australia at 12.43pm.
“Your evidence on that day was clearly not correct, was it?” Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher asked Mr McCann on Wednesday.
“No senator,” he replied.
“On the day we took an undertaking within the committee to answer the question, I received a message from my office that indicated it was 8.46 (am).
“In hindsight, we should have taken that on notice and done a more thorough search.”
He described the updated information from Senator McKenzie as “a change in attachment not a change in brief”.
But he said that change – which added nine projects to the list – cost taxpayers $2.7 million.
His team found the later emails during a search over the weekend and let him know mid-morning on Monday.
Mr McCann read the note in the early hours of Tuesday – but hasn’t yet corrected the record of his evidence.
Nor did he bring copies of the April 11 emails to the hearing on Wednesday.
“It is very convenient that you’ve appeared today without these key documents, Mr McCann. Are you withholding information from this committee?” Senator Gallagher said, but he denied that.
Senator Colbeck said two of Mr Morrison’s staffers came to his office on Tuesday evening to discuss the grants program.
“There was a clear understanding that there was a difference in the evidence provided by Sport Australia and the ANAO and that would have to be resolved,” he said.
Senator Gallagher asked if he had advised the prime minister’s staff of this.
“They were already aware of it,” he said.
Labor demanded Mr Morrison explain during Question Time when he knew parliament had been misled about the events.
“Can the prime minister confirm that his office is coordinating the cover-up?” opposition frontbencher Pat Conroy asked in parliament.
The prime minister lashed out in response, accusing Labor of being engaged in a desperate smear campaign.
“The more desperate the Labor Party become on this, the more feeble their accusations become in this place,” he said.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the government had spent months hiding information about the $100 million scheme.
“This is like pulling teeth,” he told ABC radio.