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Wren's Week: Bridget McKenzie and the Wuhan virus won't go away

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Despite accusations of rorting, Bridget McKenzie still retains her political role (Screenshots via YouTube)

Against rorting accusations, Bridget McKenzie's position seems safe, while handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been met with criticism, writes John Wren.

AGAINST ALL EXPECTATIONS, Bridget McKenzie is still in her role. We even saw Scott Morrison doubling down in his defence of her. The sports rorts scandal is doing irreparable damage to him and his government and he is yet to stem the haemorrhaging. If anything, his speech to the National Press Club actually made it worse.

How has McKenzie been allowed to survive so far? Any other government (of any political persuasion) would have red-carded her weeks ago, killing the story stone dead. By leaving her in position, more and more excavations have been conducted revealing even more incriminating evidence.

Well, it’s convoluted and it’s a failing of our political system, or more specifically the current coalition agreement between the Liberal and National Parties. First off, the evidence uncovered so far sheets the scandal right back to Morrison’s own office, almost certainly to the man himself. He would likely have been directing McKenzie.

As such, he can’t sack her from Cabinet as he runs the risk of her dragging him down with her by divulging his specific involvement. Secondly, McKenzie is Deputy Leader of the Nationals; under the coalition agreement, she is entitled to a position in Cabinet.

It would take a vote of National Party members to remove her from the Deputy Leader position and clearly that’s not going to happen. First off, it would require a challenger — likely Barnaby Joyce or David Littleproud, but both are damaged goods. Joyce, in particular, would destabilise the Nats even further. A possible third challenger would be Darren Chester but he is seen as too much of a moderate within the Nats.

Morrison’s National Press Club address was an exercise in obfuscation, lies and spin. The general consensus of journalists from across the political spectrum and from external observers is that it was the worst NPC address by a sitting Prime Minister ever heard in its environs. After Morrison’s defensive monologue concluded, there was the normal Q&A session with journalists from the audience. He did break new record, though, by responding in his usual fashion by not actually answering the questions put to him. But perhaps more shameful was that only a couple of journalists attempted to challenge him on his lies. Needless to say, none were from the Murdoch press.

There were questions, of course, about the sports rorts scandal, that Morrison either deflected or responded to with lies — the most obvious one being that they were for girls’ changing rooms so that they don’t have to get changed behind trees or in cars. The reality is that at least 12 meritorious applications for women’s changing rooms were rejected by McKenzie and one of those actually awarded was for an elite Adelaide rugby union club that has no female players anyway.

Sports rorts is now an open weeping sore for the Government. There is no sign of it improving. Once Parliament resumes, we can expect the Opposition to go for the Government’s jugular. Make no mistake, there is blood in the water and there is going to be much more before this episode concludes. We know it’s in its end stages as even the normally sycophantic Murdoch press is now covering the scandal and even asking pertinent questions.

While all this was going on, we also saw the unfolding coronavirus epidemic in China start to make its presence felt in Australia. There have been at least nine cases reported so far in Australia. All have been reported from Chinese visitors recently arrived in Australia. It’s only a matter of time before we get cases that have been contracted within Australia. On Thursday, a Tiger Airways flight from Melbourne to the Gold Coast carried a sick Chinese individual who could potentially have infected the whole plane. Time will tell over the next couple of weeks.

Stung by criticism of his inaction on the bushfire crisis, Morrison clearly wanted to be seen to be taking firm action to protect Australians from the virus. Just prior to his NPC address, he held a press conference flanked by the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Health Minister Greg Hunt. Morrison announced that the 600 Australian citizens currently “trapped” in the quarantined city of Wuhan would be airlifted out on Qantas planes and taken to Christmas Island for two weeks of quarantine before being allowed back on to the Australian mainland.

It soon transpired that Qantas had only been briefly consulted and had not, at that stage, worked out how to get their planes in and out. The Chinese authorities or the Christmas Island authorities had not been consulted either. There are also questions as to whether a Boeing 747 can land on the Christmas Island airstrip and whether the medical facilities there are up to the challenge. The detention centre has only a very basic sick bay.

In the past, anyone with a serious medical condition on the island has always been airlifted to Perth for treatment. The Government also wanted to charge returnees around $1,000 for the privilege of being rescued. After quarantine, these returnees will then be dumped at Perth airport and will then need to make their own way home from there.

Needless to say, many of the Australians in Wuhan have now stated that they would be better off staying there. To add insult to injury, New Zealand is evacuating the 100 or so of their citizens in Wuhan. They are not being quarantined remotely in a modern-day leper colony on their return either. The Kiwis have said that any Australians who want to are welcome to take up the remaining seats on their jet.

This is typical of the Morrison Government. The spin is about “we are doing the right thing and helping those in need” — the reality is that they deliberately make the process so onerous and unpleasant that no one actually takes them up on it. This is the same ploy used to recompense volunteer firefighters. Under extreme pressure, the Government gave in and offered the package but made the application process so difficult that very few firefighters took up the package.

All spin, no substance. Can someone please make it stop?

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