MEMBERS of a Wimmera sports club say it is becoming harder to secure funding for upgrades to facilities, both by themselves and from governments.
Nhill and District Sporting Club president Ash Dickinson said declining population in the area was making it harder for the club to generate their own money for projects.
He also said: "If this was a marginal area, (political parties) would be throwing money left, right and centre."
It comes after a report by Australia's Auditor General Grant Heir found the office of then Sport Minster Bridget McKenzie preferentially gave Community Sport Infrastructure grants to projects in electorates that were marginal or that they were hoping to win in the lead-up to the 2019 Federal Election on May 18.
The report, released on Wednesday, said: "Sport Australia assessed the applications against the published assessment criteria. The (Minister's Office) conducted a parallel assessment process using other considerations."
"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.
"Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed against the published program guidelines."
Mallee, the electorate which encompasses the entire Wimmera, is one of Australia's safest seats, with the National Party returned to power with a margin of 16.2 per cent at the last election.
Across three rounds between December 2018 and April 2019, the grants program awarded $100.6 million to 684 projects nationwide, including $500,000 to Balmoral Recreation Reserve, another $500,000 towards the development of clubrooms at Stawell's North Park and $250,000 to replace the floor at Warracknabeal Leisure Centre.
Hindmarsh Shire Economic and Community Development Manager Phil King confirmed the council applied to the program to upgrade Nhill's Davis Park grandstand. It was ultimately unsuccessful.
Mr Dickinson said it was becoming harder for the club to secure funding for upgrades to their facilities without government support.
"We've been in consultation with the council to upgrade our clubrooms, and they've tried to combine that with the grandstand upgrade, but we still have to find quite a bit of the money," he said.
"It used to be we'd pay for some of the value of project by helping to build it, but with OH and S that seems to have diminished dramatically, in the last few years especially. You have to have qualifications to be on building sites."
Mr Dickinson said the clubroom and grandstand upgrades would cost at least $1.5 million.
"Our gate takings are getting lower because the population is declining. In the past we've owned sheep and run sheep on farms, but once the drought hit that got more difficult and there are just less people running sheep," he said.
The club's grant co-ordinator Helen Cannell said the process for applying for non-government grants had also become more difficult in recent years.
"I tried to apply for a grant with (ANZ) Tennis Hotshots for new clubrooms, and part of the criteria was making a video," she said.
"If you don't have people that are good with technology then it's one person with a smartphone, so you're disadvantaged to start with and the organisations might think you're not as interested as other applicants, when you really need the money.
"I mostly apply for state government grants that are $10,000 or less and the expectations now in the application process are much higher compared to 10 years ago - you need letters of recommendation and three quotes if you want improvements.
"You used to be guaranteed at least some of the funding you sought through grant applications, now they're being more stringent, possibly because more groups are applying."
Rupanyup Football Netball Club president Rod Weidemann said it would be impossible for the club to upgrade its playing field without state and federal support. The club has been given $250,000 from both levels of government to install lightning.
"We are hoping to become a destination club because of our facility," he said. "We've done well out of the grant process and I guess that's about proving we're a vibrant community.
"Sport is a massively important part of our social environment in Rupanyup, and our physical and mental health."
The Mail-Times contacted Member for Mallee Anne Webster and Minister McKenzie for comment.
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