Backlash over ‘fake’ $127k cheque
Georgina Downer has hit back at the criticism of her controversial $127,000 novelty cheque, revealing Yankalilla Bowling Club asked her to organise it.
Ms Downer, who is the Liberal candidate for the South Australian seat Mayo, was photographed with the cheque on Friday as she joined the club to celebrate its $127,373 government grant to fix a bowling green.
The cheque bore the Liberal Party's logo and Ms Downer's face. Critics said it looked as though Ms Downer and the Liberals were handing over their own cash, when it was actually coming from taxpayers.
Today Ms Downer told news.com.au the cheque was taken "in great jest" and was never meant to be serious.
She said she was invited to the club's regular Friday evening tea because its members "really appreciated" her advocacy on their behalf.
"Last year the club approached me to seek support for their application to replace their third bowling green," Ms Downer said.
She inspected the green and found it was in disrepair.
Ms Downer said the club played an "important role" in the local area, and needed to grow along with the rest of the community.
"I totally understood the need and was very keen to help them in any way I could. I contacted the minister's office. I wrote to the minister. I supported the application. I followed up on a number of occasions."
On Tuesday last week, the club learned its application had been accepted.
"They were over the moon. People were saying this was the best thing that had ever happened," Ms Downer said.
"They asked me if I'd like to join them for their Friday night tea. I had attended them previously.
"They asked if there might be a chance of me arranging a novelty cheque. I said I'd look into it. I turned up on Friday night and I had the cheque, we had a very joyful occasion, it was an amazing atmosphere in the room.
"I presented this cheque and it was very funny and we all laughed about the fact it was a novelty cheque. It doesn't even have a signature on it.
"It was all taken in great jest, and just added to the joy of the occasion."
Ms Downer said she did not design the cheque, and it was approved by the South Australian division of the Liberal Party.
"In all my statements about the grant I said it was a Community Sport Infrastructure grant. I congratulated them on their success," she said.
"I think everyone's familiar with novelty cheques. This cheque would be almost as big as me. It's clearly not going to be able to be used."
Yankalilla Bowling Club never saw the backlash coming.
The only sign of the controversy on the club's Facebook page today is one jubilant post, published on Tuesday, announcing Ms Downer would be appearing later in the week to "make a formal announcement" about the success of the grant.
The post thanked Ms Downer for making her time available to the bowling club and supporting the project.
But in the comments section, the mood was very different. A flood of comments, all posted in the last 48 hours, have slammed the club for accepting the cheque.
"Why was the cheque presented with a Liberal Party logo and Georgina's face when the money is a government grant? Taxpayers' money, not Liberal Party money, not Georgina's money," wrote Peter McConnell.
"A bowling club should be politically neutral. Your acceptance of this fake cheque emblazoned with a Liberal Party candidate could hardly be considered neutral," said Suzanne Kelly.
"Appalling judgment to allow Georgina Downer to imply that this money came from her or from the Liberal Party. She should not be presenting this cheque, whether she had a part in helping secure the funding or not," Rob Yarnall said.
Several commenters berated the club for snubbing its local MP, Rebekha Sharkie.
"Why is this grant being presented by Georgina when your local member is Rebekha Sharkie?" asked David Allen.
"Not Downer money. Not Liberal money. It was taxpayer money through a government grant. It should have been presented by a representative of the federal government. Someone like your elected member," Mark Evans said.
"What a slap in the face for your sitting MP who actually took 'the time' to help you draft your grant application. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!" Stephanie Muir said.
And so on.
News.com.au has contacted Yankalilla Bowling Club for comment.
Yesterday Labor's Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus called on Auditor-General Grant Hehir to investigate the suggestion that taxpayer money had actually come from the Liberal Party.
"I understand Ms Downer 'announced' the grant to the Yankalilla Bowling Club before the elected local member of parliament, Rebekha Sharkie, had even been advised that the grant application was successful," Mr Dreyfus wrote in a letter to Mr Hehir.
"It is questionable whether this is compliant with Community Sport Infrastructure Program guidelines, particularly given the Yankalilla Bowling Club's successful application under the program was sponsored by Ms Sharkie and relied on a letter of support from her."
Ms Sharkie, for her part, said the novelty cheque was "desperate and misleading".
"The letter from Minister (Bridget) McKenzie arrived at my parliamentary office late Tuesday afternoon. We then notified the successful winners, however, one was aware and had already organised their Friday night cheque presentation event," Ms Sharkie said.
"In more than a decade of politics I've never seen a taxpayer funded grant delivered by cheque with a candidate's face and name on it. Rather desperate and misleading."
Meanwhile, the government stuck up for Ms Downer.
"That type of self-promotional act is what members and candidates do right across the country all the time to help raise the awareness of the fact that they're working and fighting for their local community," Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News yesterday.
Ms Downer has also faced criticism over a campaign ad she released on Friday attacking Labor's franking credits policy.
The ad featured a 72-year-old retiree named Jim.
"Bill Shorten's retirement tax is hopeless for us people living in South Australia. A lot of people, my friends included, we rely on our stocks and shares and the dividends we get from them. Bill Shorten is taking that away from them," Jim said.
"It's going to hurt us. Bill Shorten hasn't thought about the people who have worked hard. He's taken away the certainty and now we're not quite sure what's going to happen in the future."
It turned out the ad's star was the former Liberal Party state director Jim Bonner.
Ms Downer defended the ad when she spoke to news.com.au today.
"Jim is 72. He's a retiree. Irrespective of people's past career or their political leanings, there are thousands of people around this country who will be affected by Bill Shorten's retiree tax," she said. "I speak to many people every day like Jim."
Ms Downer pointed to another video she posted yesterday, featuring another retiree called Jim.
"To tax retirees in this way is an insult and Australians who have worked really hard for their retirement, and are looking forward to providing for their own retirement, are going to be seriously affected," the other Jim said.