The Government’s questionable use of a $100 million sports slush fund didn’t shock us. And that’s the real problem, writes Shaun Carney.
The Government’s questionable use of a $100 million sports slush fund didn’t shock us. And that’s the real problem, writes Shaun Carney.

Why the Coalition will survive the sports rort scandal

In announcing that Bridget McKenzie had resigned as a minister because she'd breached ministerial standards, Scott Morrison praised her to the heavens.

"Outstanding job." "Amazing work." "Has shown a great respect for the statement of standards." "Incredible application." "Dedication." "Discipline." "So I say 'thank you'. I also thank her for her role, not just as a minister but I thank her for her role in Cabinet and the many contributions she's made over quite a period of time. And I also want to thank her for the important role that she has played as part of our leadership group," he said.

The Prime Minister laid it on with a trowel, and he had to. Imagine what McKenzie could do if - resentful at having to take the fall for the government's use of a $100 million, publicly funded pre-election slush fund - she decided to tell us everything she knew about the workings of the scheme, including the involvement of other ministers. Best to keep her happy and leave open the chance that she can be restored to the front bench when things blow over.

It's possible that aside from trying to keep McKenzie quiet and onside, Morrison also felt a pang of real sympathy for her. After all, she was only there by accident.

In 2017 she was catapulted from the backbench into Cabinet when she stumbled into the deputy leadership of the National Party, replacing Fiona Nash, who was disqualified from sitting in the parliament.

It was McKenzie's misfortune to get the sports portfolio, giving her direct responsibility for the sporting infrastructure grants program, always a temptation for rorting.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack will weather this storm. Picture: Rohan Thomson/Getty
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack will weather this storm. Picture: Rohan Thomson/Getty

McKenzie has taken the fall - not for any corruption but for a technicality relating to a minor conflict of interest - but it's impossible to believe that she was the real brains behind the operation.

The idea that a government desperately trying to hang on to power at an election would entrust a key pork-barrelling effort exclusively to an inexperienced minister from the National Party and her young staff defies all political logic. In any case, there's email traffic from McKenzie's staff confirming that the PM's office was involved in shaping the outcome of the grants list.

The cynicism driving this entire episode, from the political nature of the way grants were dispensed to the methods the government is using to try to get past the whole thing, is pretty breathtaking. McKenzie is not the only casualty.

The Auditor-General Grant Hehir must now be wondering why he bothers to go into work each morning. His report into the scheme found that it was used as a blatant political tool by the government to give away money to groups where it most needed to pick up votes. The PM subsequently got the secretary of his department Phil Gaetjens, a long-time Liberal adviser who was previously his chief of staff, to review the scheme and McKenzie's conduct.

Gaetjens apparently rejected the Auditor-General's finding that the scheme was used as a political slush fund and said everything was above board. Think about that: the nation's top bureaucrat has dismissed the work of the independent agency whose job it is to audit public expenditure.

The PM won't let us see Gaetjens' report which, while clearing McKenzie's spending decisions, found she had breached ministerial ethics by not declaring her membership of a club to which she awarded money.

Bridget McKenzie stepped down as Sports Minister on Monday. Picture: AAP/Marc Tewksbury
Bridget McKenzie stepped down as Sports Minister on Monday. Picture: AAP/Marc Tewksbury

Why couldn't the PM have worked that out for himself in five minutes rather than involving his departmental secretary to act as some sort of laundryman? In principle and practice, the ministerial standards are the Prime Minister's. Equally, why bother to have an Auditor-General and why create this new source of bureaucratic conflict? These are the sort of questions cynicism can produce. We're getting good at cynicism these days.

I'll be surprised if this episode shifts voter opinion much about the government. Voters don't expect anything better anymore. They did take these things more seriously once but the notion that "all sides of politics do it, so what can you do?" is common currency now.

The "whiteboard affair" involving similar rorting of grants that ended the career of Labor minister Ros Kelly in 1994 really hurt the Keating government. Kelly left parliament and Labor got smashed at the by-election and then at the next election. Compare that with the controversies involving Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, pinged for the use of a chartered helicopter in 2015, and minister Sussan Ley who misused travel entitlements in 2017. The government held on at subsequent elections and Ley is back as a minister.

Cynical politics encourages cynicism in voters, which has the outcome of normalising poor behaviour. It's zero sum. We're seeing all this play out in real time.

The PM will try to make good on the McKenzie affair through a new round of grants, presumably making sure that the groups and clubs that should have got money last time will, this time, find success. Everybody goes away happy, albeit having unwittingly contributed a good chunk of $100 million in the first round to help keep the government in power. Thus, the pre-election slush fund is potentially further legitimised.

We're moving towards a different type of politics. On Monday, we learned that Clive Palmer's United Australia Party underwrote the Coalition's re-election effort to the tune of a staggering $89.5 million.

Money has always talked in our politics. Now, it booms.

Shaun Carney is a columnist for The Herald Sun.


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