Michaelia Cash grilled about business grant scheme where funds flowed overwhelmingly to Coalition seats – politics live

In estimates a little earlier, Labor sought to pressure the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, over a grants program that caused more than $4m in funds to flow overwhelmingly to Coalition seats.

The grant program for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Export Hubs, designed to support Australian exporters, has been run across two rounds, the first worth $4.5m and the second about $10m.

According to a Labor analysis, about 97% of first round funding went to recipients in Liberal or National seats, while only 3% went to Labor seats. Labor has been alleging politicisation of the scheme since June, and resumed its attack on Wednesday.

Employment minister Michaelia Cash.

Employment minister Michaelia Cash. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Cash denied any suggestion of politicisation. She said electorates formed no part of the assessment process.

“This was a competitive grants program with all applicants providing access of how they met the criteria … through a two-stage selection process,” Cash said.

“The applications were assessed by that criteria through programs established by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. All projects were then recommended to the minister based on merit.”

Cash said the minister did not depart from the department’s recommendations. In a press release, the shadow industry minister, Brendan O’Connor, accused Cash of ducking questions.

“Is the only way for Australians to ensure they are not left behind is be associated with the LNP?” he said.

“Instead of providing any useful information, Senator Cash spent the entire time under questioning from Senator O’Neill avoiding answering the simple question – were eight projects out of nine delivered in Coalition-held electorates in round one of the SME Export Hubs funding round?”

Later in estimates, the Labor MP Deborah O’Neill raised a series of allegations that grants had gone to Liberal donors and companies associated with the party.

Labor senators Kristina Keneally and Deborah O’Neill.

Labor senators Kristina Keneally and Deborah O’Neill. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

That included a $250,000 grant awarded to Food South Australia, whose chair is a past Liberal donor. A grant of $839,000 was also awarded to the Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise.

Estimates heard that Ian Macfarlane, a former LNP MP, is a director of that company. O’Neill asked whether those were “coincidences”.

“I have not alleged a single thing, I am asking your opinion,” she said. Cash said the grant process was independent and the allegations that the process favoured a political party were “unfair”.