A former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has taken an extraordinary swipe at current secretary Philip Gaetjens over his report clearing former minister Bridget McKenzie of political bias.
Dr Michael Keating, who was cabinet secretary and led PM&C from 1991 to 1996, said the Gaetjens report "reflects poorly on its author".
"It would seem, on the evidence, that Gaetjens has produced a report whose only purpose was to get the government off a political hook," he said in a post on the Pearls and Irritations blog.
"However, as head of the public service, Gaetjens' first duty is to uphold it[s] values and integrity."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison commissioned Mr Gaetjens to conduct a review after Auditor-General Grant Hehir found Senator McKenzie awarded grants under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program according to whether sporting organisations were in targeted or marginal electorates, largely ignoring the merit-based assessments of Sport Australia.
Mr Morrison has refused to publicly release the review, but in announcing Senator McKenzie's resignation said Mr Gaetjens found "no basis for the suggestion that political considerations were ... the primary determining factor".
But Dr Keating questioned the substance of the Gaetjens findings outlined by the Prime Minister, including the claim that applications from marginal or targeted electorates were approved at rates "statistically similar" to those from other electorates and that Senator McKenzie had unconstrained ministerial discretion in administering the program.
"Frankly, I find these findings by Gaetjens [about the rates of success of applications] difficult to reconcile statistically with the evidence produced by the Auditor-General," he said.
Dr Keating also challenged Mr Gaetjens' conclusions about the breadth of Senator McKenzie's ministerial discretion.
He said that in exercising their discretion, ministers are bound by a code requiring them to act with integrity, fairness, accountability and responsibility.
This means ministers are usually limited to determining eligibility criteria, "not deciding which individual applications most merit assistance".
Dr Keating said the fact that the government has accepted the Auditor-General's recommendation that all programs should be bound by Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines was tantamount to admitting Senator McKenzie should have been bound by these rules at the time.
"I find the fact that Gaetjens' report apparently ignored these fundamental considerations of good government and ministerial conduct inconceivable," Dr Keating said.
"In my view, the Gaetjens report reflects poorly on its author."