As leader of the Liberal Party and opposition, I drove the sports rorts scandal against Ros Kelly, the then sports minister in the Keating government, back in 1994. It resulted in her ultimate resignation.
The sports rorts scandal involving the current Sport Minister, Bridget McKenzie, is worse.
By John Hewson
I was staggered that it took Prime Minister Scott Morrison almost two weeks to begin to deal with McKenzie. This is an open-and-shut case of the abuse of her position for political gain.
I was staggered again on Wednesday by the arrogant way Morrison dispensed with questioning of his handling of the scandal at the National Press Club.
In Ros Kelly’s case, at least, there was no doubt that she had the power to make the allocations of the sporting grants that she made. The focus was on Kelly’s poor administration and blatant politics. She made the decisions about the grants on a whiteboard, then erased them.Advertisement
There is serious doubt that McKenzie had such power. Sport Australia had been empowered by the Parliament to run the program, independent of government. It is now clear, from documents obtained by the ABC, that McKenzie ignored the pre-election warnings of Sport Australia that her interference was compromising its independence.
In ducking the Press Club questioning, Morrison argued at length, as a distraction, that there are many “worthy” projects. He emphasised that the Auditor-General had not referred to any “ineligible projects”, and that as ministers he and his colleagues were “more in touch” with communities and what they needed than, by implication, bureaucrats.
Morrison didn’t acknowledge any political bias in the allocation of the grants; he wouldn’t concede they were made for political expediency rather than merit.
There is no doubt that McKenzie had a significant conflict of interest in making a grant to a clay-shooting club of which she was a member, especially if, as it seems, this conflict was never materially declared by her at relevant points in the grants process.
The key initial finding by the Auditor-General is that some 73 per cent of grants given had not been recommended by Sport Australia, but were allocated by her and her office to marginal seats that the government wanted to win or hold at the election.
It is now reported that the Prime Minister’s office was involved in the allocation of these grants, along with the government members and senators. Morrison himself announced a $200,000 grant in his own electorate. Again, Morrison did not directly address questions at the Press Club, except to suggest he passed on information that he had relevant to the grants, “as all PMs do”.
Tony Harris, the former auditor-general in NSW, said recently that if this issue had come across his desk he would have passed it immediately to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Clearly McKenzie’s processes corrupted the established government process in an attempt to gain political advantage.
How is it that this didn’t immediately ring alarm bells for Morrison? Apart from the usual reluctance of PMs to fire a minister, was he concerned about declaring and defending his role and that of his office and colleagues?
Morrison has compounded his problems by initiating two faux inquiries, rather than move immediately to terminate McKenzie. Can Attorney-General Christian Porter really be objective when sports organisations in his seat received more than $1 million in grants?
Phil Gaetjens, now the head of the Prime Minister’s Department, having previously been Morrison’s chief of staff, is heading the inquiry. This, in itself, raises obvious questions about conflict of interest.
But why did Morrison try to narrow the focus to a possible breach of the ministerial code of conduct (that is, the possible conflict of interest in allocating about $36,000 to McKenzie’s clay-shooting club) when she had misallocated almost three-quarters of the $100 million grant money?
In marshalling evidence against Ros Kelly, I had our members report to me on the grants made to organisations in their seats, the stated purpose and the realities. Not surprisingly, some grants were found to be inexplicable – the likes of a grant for lights on a sporting field that didn’t exist. It appears there may have been similar abuses in McKenzie’s allocations – funding for women’s toilets at a venue where the women’s team had been disbanded.
The government can expect a tirade of discontent from those organisations whose projects had been highly rated by Sport Australia, but ignored by McKenzie.
Sure, it is difficult for Morrison as McKenzie is from the National Party, its deputy leader no less, and technically the Nats’ leader, Michael McCormack, would have to fire her. McCormack also clearly doesn’t want to reopen leadership tensions in his party, with Barnaby Joyce likely to want to run amok, and with the conspicuous ambitions of David Littleproud and Matt Canavan.
However, Morrison has made a lot of his setting of, and adherence to, the highest standards of ministerial responsibility and accountability. He simply must enforce these, by firing McKenzie, especially when his leadership has been under a cloud over his mishandling of the bushfires.
He should also undertake to establish a federal ICAC – or a corruption watchdog with as much bite – to establish a framework within which these issues can be dealt with fairly and expeditiously.
John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.
First published at The Sydney Morning Herald Thursday 30 January 2020. See; https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/i-hounded-ros-kelly-until-she-resigned-but-bridget-mckenzie-s-sports-rorts-are-worse-20200129-p53vsa.html