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McKenzie, Morrison and smoking sport rorts pork barrels

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Senator Bridget McKenzie has resigned from Cabinet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison says 'sports rorts' affair is now closed (Screenshots via YouTube)

It is ludicrous to suggest that McKenzie undertook the massive misuse of public money without the PM's authorisation, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

MANY OF US are by now cynically unsurprised by the Coalition Government’s contempt for its citizens, although our outrage and disgust at our treatment are yet to be exhausted.

The lack of respect the political class displays for the people who pay their generous salaries and benefits is daily reinforced by the lies, obfuscation and denial we have come to expect from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, practically every time he opens his mouth. The latest test of our patience and credulity is the so-called "sports rorts" affair.

Senator Bridget McKenzie resigned on Sunday from her Agriculture portfolio and of necessity, according to Coalition rules, from her position as Deputy Leader of the National Party. McKenzie was found by Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Philip Gaetjens – to whom Morrison referred the matter for “review,” to have breached ministerial standards. McKenzie omitted to disclose her membership in a gun club to which she allocated one of 73 per cent of contested grants allegedly awarded for political reasons, rather on merit.

Mr Gaetjens was also Morrison’s chief of staff when he was Treasurer.

That the Prime Minister referred the matter to the secretary of his own Department and has now refused to release Mr Gaetjens’ report should surprise nobody. It should, however, cause us both anger and disgust.

Morrison would have us believe that McKenzie is solely responsible for the awarding of $100 million worth of sports grants in a fashion the Auditor-General's report into the matter found was:

'… not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice.'

The Auditor-General further found that:

The successful applications were not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious in terms of the published program guidelines.

It is ludicrous to suggest that McKenzie undertook this massive misuse of public money in the service of the LNP election campaign without authorisation, assistance and encouragement from the Prime Minister, and yet, this is what Morrison claims.

“All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us,” Mr Morrison said, in defence of two of his senior staffers allegedly linked to the rort.

Morrison has consistently denied any involvement in the pork-barreling, however, an email leaked last week appears to confirm his office was a part of the affair. Of course, Mr Gaetjens was not required to inquire into who else might have been involved, and how. His remit focused solely on Bridget McKenzie.

Mysteriously, Mr Gaetjens came to a conclusion that is exactly the opposite to that of the Auditor-General.

According to Morrison, his former chief of staff “did not find evidence” that the allocation of grants was “unduly influenced by reference to marginal or targeted electorates.”

Gaetjens found this despite McKenzie’s use of a spreadsheet to determine which clubs would receive grants, colour-coded by which political party held the seat.

Of course, we have no idea the extent of Mr Gaetjens findings, because we are not permitted to see his report. We only have Mr Morrison’s summary. Quite where this leaves the Auditor-General is anybody’s guess, as Gaetjens’ report appears to discredit his findings and the Prime Minister has endorsed this discrediting.

Surely Mr Gaetjens’ review could not have been as thorough as that produced by the Auditor-General, and yet the Prime Minister has rejected the latter in favour of the former. Will the Auditor-General find his position untenable and resign? There is a precedent for such resignations. In 2016, Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson resigned after a disagreement with then Attorney-General George Brandis, claiming their relationship was “irrevocably broken”.

This Coalition Government does not have an easy relationship with statutory bodies who call it to account.  

McKenzie could, if she chose, blow the entire Government out of the water by revealing exactly who knew what. No doubt she is deeply engaged in working out a deal that will yield her the most benefit, though it is difficult to imagine what this might be.  Leader of the National Party and Deputy PM must surely be a prize now forever out of her reach, although, given the current incumbent and his predecessor, anything is possible. Perhaps McKenzie’s ambitions lie outside of the parliament: a nice embassy, a snug consulate, a lucrative position on a statutory body.

A short banishment to the backbench, until she’s rehabilitated, since Morrison and everyone else in the Coalition work from the premise that we, the people, will forget. We will move on. If they flummox us long enough and hard enough with lies, obfuscations, weasel words and gaslighting, we’ll forget the harm they’ve done and continue to do to us, our institutions and our democracy.

We are now dependent on the Opposition’s appetite for pursuing this matter. Labor has said it will follow up with a Senate inquiry into the sports rorts scandal, despite McKenzie’s resignation from Cabinet. This is heartening news. If there’s one thing we need in these times, it’s an opposition that will pursue a government led by a prime minister who becomes more Trumpian by the day in his attitude to power and his justifications for any behaviour that will enable him to hold onto it.

Increasingly, Morrison demonstrates his belief, no doubt fueled by his religious faith as well, that governments are above the law. His contempt for statutory bodies and his stated belief that government ministers know better than public servants should be causing considerable alarm. A vigorous opposition is required to challenge and contest what can otherwise only end in tyranny.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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