Sport Australia defied a Senate committee request to respond to questions about its role in the Morrison government’s controversial sports grants program, while senior officials involved in the administration of the grants claim to have no “specific recollection” of a hastily convened teleconference to discuss the government’s colour-coded spreadsheets.
Sport Australia had been ordered to respond to 40 questions its officials had taken on notice following a 28 February committee hearing examining the $100m sports grants program by 6 March.
Guardian Australia can reveal that after being denied an extension to answer the questions, Sport Australia refused to comply with the order and the questions, which included further information on what it knew about the colour-coded spreadsheets and when changes were made, remain unanswered.
The refusal came just one day after Sport Australia was forced to admit it had given the Senate committee the wrong information about when it received ministerial briefs from Bridget McKenzie’s office on the day the election was called.
The former health department boss Glenys Beauchamp did comply with the Senate order to answer questions, but denied having any memory of a late-night meeting between herself, the Australian Sports Commission chair, John Wylie, and the former Sport Australia head Kate Palmer.
Palmer told the Senate committee on 28 February she had been “surprised” to see one of the colour-coded targeted and marginal seat spreadsheets McKenzie’s office was using to award the grants, after it was handed to her by a staffer as she walked into an April estimates hearing, just days before Scott Morrison called the election.
“A teleconference was held that evening between the chair of the board, the department secretary and myself,” Palmer told the inquiry.
Palmer told the committee she had taken no notes, but remembered it had been called to ensure Sport Australia was meeting its obligations.
When Beauchamp faced the committee on what was her last day in the public service, she said said she could not recall the meeting and any notes she may have taken were among those she destroyed in January, following her resignation from the public service.
In response to a question for further information, the department reported: “Ms Beauchamp spoke to Mr Wylie and neither has any specific recollection of the meeting as reported by Ms Palmer.”
The department also reported it had “no record of any meeting in the form reported by Ms Palmer”.
Sport Australia has not officially responded to the Senate request for further information and the public service commissioner told Labor it had no plans to investigate Beauchamp for destroying her “private notes”. The nation’s archivist reported that without knowing what was in the notebooks, it was impossible to say whether or not Beauchamp had broken the law.
Labor’s shadow public service minister, Katy Gallagher, has now written to the attorney general, Christian Porter, asking him to investigate the destroyed notes.
“It seems all very convenient that no official records are available from a key meeting of senior officials – urgently convened to discuss the management of political interference in the allocation of sports grants and that of the three officials present at that meeting only former CEO of Sport Australia, Ms Palmer, can recall it,” Gallagher said.
“I have referred the matter of the destruction of records to the attorney general following the advice of the Public Service Commissioner. As a commonwealth public servant the making and keeping of records is not a discretionary act.”
The Senate committee has come no closer to getting to the bottom of the sports rorts affair, with more questions being raised almost every week over the legality of the decisions made.
The Australian National Audit Office had testified the prime minister’s office had requested a last-minute change before the documents were sent to Sport Australia at 8.46am on 11 April, the day the government went into caretaker mode. Another set of changes were made at 12.43pm that same day.
McKenzie gave her first statement since resigning from the ministry over the saga late last week when she denied making “any changes or annotations” to the ministerial brief after 4 April, leaving open the question of who did.
Morrison has repeatedly denied he or his office had anything to do with the decision-making when it came to the grants, despite the audit office reporting 136 emails were exchanged between his office and the then sport minister’s staff.
He refused to take questions on the issue on Friday, following McKenzie’s statement.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the public deserved answers.
“We need to know who changed the additional nine grants that were given and the one grant that was taken off,” he said on Sunday.
“The minister says it wasn’t her, the prime minister refused to answer questions about it at a media conference, that is not good enough.
“This government needs to be accountable and not just dismiss issues, say that they are the ‘bubble’, say that is just ‘gossip’, which is what Scott Morrison’s form is.”
The Senate committee looking at the sports rorts allegations hits the road this week, with trips to Adelaide and Melbourne scheduled to talk to sports clubs that missed out on grants. It is also considering recalling Wylie, Palmer and potentially health department officials in light of the new evidence.
“Each passing day raises more questions about this government’s conduct regarding sports rorts,” the Labor committee chair, Anthony Chisholm, said.
“Following senator McKenzie’s intervention we don’t know who authorised the late approved projects, there is conflicting evidence between the former Sport Australia CEO, her chair and departmental secretary and we have Sport Australia failing to answer questions on notice.
“We won’t let the prime minister off the hook when it comes to being held accountable for his government’s sports rorts.”
On Sunday afternoon, Sport Australia said in a statement that “our staff have been working very diligently to finalise the large amount of questions we took on notice” and that they were keeping the committee’s secretariat updated on their progress.