McKenzie gone for the scandal

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Is it any wonder that Australians are losing faith in the way our democracy works? The minister responsible for administering a $100 million sports grants program in a way to advantage the Liberal and National parties at the last election, Bridget McKenzie, is gone, but not for rorting. She’s gone because the government could no longer tough out the scandal.

capital hill writer Paul Bongiorno
Political analyst Paul Bongiorno

The Auditor-General two weeks ago released a detailed report into then Sports Minister McKenzie’s doling out of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds not on merit but as a vote buying exercise. The Auditor found McKenzie ignored the required merit-based assessment of hundreds of volunteer sports clubs around Australia and made decisions so skewed as to be breathtaking. For example, a club with 45 women members in a safe Labor seat in Adelaide scored highly for help in the view of Sport Australia for a half-million dollar grant for change rooms and toilets. McKenzie ignored the application and instead gave the funding to a marginal Liberal electorate in the same city for female amenities – except that club had no female players.

In the intervening weeks since the Auditor’s report, the media has been flooded with leaks from inside the government’s relevant offices and agencies. They dramatically illustrated that it wasn’t only the coalition’s political opponents who were angry but political staff and public servants whose internal whistle blowing was ignored by a cavalier minister.

The leaks established pretty convincingly that Minister McKenzie was not acting alone. The coalition’s marginal seats campaigners and the prime minister’s office were in on the act. A scapegoat was needed urgently but the Nationals’ deputy leader McKenzie was digging in. Then the Prime Minister got lucky. McKenzie was too sloppy in the way she assigned $36,000 to the Wangaratta Clay Target Club of which she was a member. She failed to deal with it according to a strict reading of Morrison’s Ministerial Standards.

The strict reading came from the head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Phil Gaetjens. His confidential report to his boss conveniently found the breach and further re-interpreted the Auditor-General’s conclusions to contradict them. But Morrison refuses to release Gaetjens’ handiwork. Talk about not passing the sniff test. And for good measure the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, a Liberal politician whose marginal electorate benefited from McKenzie’s controversial handouts, found no illegality.

A sure sign that the PM and his treasurer Josh Frydenberg know the rorts were beyond the pale is new rules recommended by the Auditor will be applied. Frydenberg says there will now be more transparency and accountability.

The last has not been heard of this scandal; the senate plans an inquiry which could lead to more embarrassing revelations.

Morrison’s guidelines state that “the Australian people deserve a Government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve.”

He’s right, let’s hope we see more convincing evidence he believes it.

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