January 16, 2020 / 2:20 AM / 7 days ago

Australian government used public funds to target marginal electorates: auditor

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s conservative government used a A$100 million ($69 million) sport development fund to target votes in marginal electorates ahead of an election last year, the country’s independent auditor of public spending has concluded.

FILE PHOTO - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison secured re-election in May 2019, defying polls that had indicated voters would punish the conservative government for the backbench revolt that ousted former leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2018.

Looking to regain lost support in the run-up to the election, Morrison’s government promised increased spending on local sport, but the Australian National Audit Office said late on Tuesday that then Minister for Sport Bridget McKenzie used the public funds to win favor with voters.

The report said 400 projects received funding. The Australian National Audit Office said more than 70% of those that received funding had done so without any endorsement by the governing body for sport in Australia.

“The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the minister’s office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be targeted by the Coalition at the 2019 election,” the report read.

The report fuels pressure on Morrison, who is already struggling under a barrage of criticism over his government’s handing of ragging bushfires that have destroyed an area the size of Bulgaria.

McKenzie did not dispute the findings of the report, though she insisted no rules had been broken.

“Ministerial discretion was actually written into the guidelines for a purpose,” McKenzie told Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio.

“Right now, as a result of our investment, parents are watching their kids get active on a Saturday morning.”

Australia’s current Minister for Sport Richard Colbeck said the government would take action on the audit’s findings, though he did not specify what changes would be made.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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