The auditor-general’s office will look into a federal funding program after the Liberal candidate Georgina Downer presented a giant novelty cheque emblazoned with her name and image to a local sports club which had won a commonwealth grant.
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, complained to the Australian National Audit Office after Downer, the Liberal candidate in the South Australian seat of Mayo, posted a photo on social media showing her awarding the cheque for more than $125,000, featuring her face and name, to a bowls club in the electorate.
The $127,373 grant was part of a $60m federal sports grant program, which sits within the health portfolio, to help community sports clubs upgrade their facilities.
The Mayo MP, independent Rebekha Sharkie, who defeated Downer in a byelection in the seat last year, was not told of the funding grant until after Downer made the presentation. Downer is running against Sharkie again in the upcoming federal election.
At the time, Sharkie said the cheque was paramount to “misleading conduct”, as it made the funding look like a gift from Downer, or the Liberal party, instead of the taxpayer grant it actually represented.
Downer defended her role to local ABC Adelaide radio as “not presenting commonwealth money”, because the cheque was not legal tender.
But Dreyfus disagreed, questioning in his letter to the auditor general “how it is possible for Ms Downer, the unsuccessful candidate for the 2018 Mayo by-election and an unelected candidate for the upcoming federal election, to misuse a taxpayer-funded grant in this fashion”.
“It is completely inappropriate and unacceptable for Ms Downer and the Liberal Party to treat taxpayers’ money as if it were their own, and to deceive Australians about the true source of this taxpayer-funded grant.”
In response the auditor general, Grant Hehir, said he had decided to “conduct a performance audit of the award of funding” under the program.
“The audit will assess whether the award of funding under the program was informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice,” Hehir wrote to Dreyfus.
“The ANAO will examine whether the program was well-designed, applications were soundly assessed in accordance with the program guidelines, and whether funding decisions were informed by clear advice consistent with program guidelines.”
Dreyfus welcomed the investigation and said he hoped it was expanded to look at any similar examples.
“It is absolutely correct that the audit office have agreed to investigate this matter,” he said. “Ms Downer’s actions made a joke of a taxpayer-funded program and show how desperate the Liberal Party are.”
An initial $29.7m was set aside in the 2018 budget for the program and a further $30.3m was made available in December.