Hewson's view: Bridget McKenzie must go

Under pressure: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is standing by former sports minister Bridget McKenzie over the sports grants controversy. Picture: Australian Community Media
Under pressure: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is standing by former sports minister Bridget McKenzie over the sports grants controversy. Picture: Australian Community Media

Voters have always been concerned about the behaviour of our political leaders and, importantly, how they spend taxpayers' money.

This concern has certainly intensified over time, especially at times of demonstrated bad behaviour, abuse of position and power, and misallocation of public monies.

Prime ministers have usually sought to take the "high ground", even boasting about their high moral and ethical standards, establishing ministerial "Codes of Conduct", promising to enforce "ministerial responsibility", and so on.

However, ignore the boast, judge them on their implementation and enforcement. Understandably, PMs never want to have to sack a minister, but they define themselves by what they do and say in the defence of a minister, indicating just how much substance is actually in their boasts about standards. In the end, nothing is worse to a voter than to have endure the spectacle of obfuscation and the failing defence of a minister, for many days, until they are ultimately sacked, especially if that minister's behaviour was obviously a breach of the declared standards, and obviously failed "the pub test", comparable standards applied to business, or the general citizenry, or just common sense.

The current "Sports Rorts" scandal concerning the behaviour of Deputy Nationals Leader, Bridget McKenzie, in allocating pre-election grants to sporting organisations for political effect, rather than on merit, as determined by an independent statutory authority, Sport Australia, fails on all counts.

Some 684 grants were made across Australia, but the Auditor-General found that 73 per cent of the approved projects were not recommended by Sport Australia. While there was a clear bias in favour of projects in key marginal seats, several government ministers also had their "snouts in the trough", including the Prime Minister getting a crucial $200,000 grant for a soccer club in his electorate, and even Bridget herself with a $36,000 grant to a clay shooting club of which she is a member.

The silence of Sport Australia on this scandal has been staggering and defining.

The silence of Sport Australia on this scandal has been staggering ...

These revelations, and others to come no doubt, raise a further layer of questions about the involvement of the PM and others in what is clearly a corrupt process. Indeed, ex AG in NSW, Tony Harris, has said that if this issue had come to him he would immediately have referred it to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. There is no federal body with the powers of ICAC, and the Morrison government has consistently opposed establishing one.

The defence of McKenzie has been that she had the "power" to override the Commission. There is serious legal doubt about this claim - more likely, she had the opportunity to suggest, not decide. McKenzie has also sought to distract on the grant to her shooting club, claiming that her membership was a "gift", of insufficient value to warrant disclosure - however, the issue is not the gift, but whether she declared "an interest" in the decision process, informed the PM, etc.

In 1994, as Opposition Leader, I forced the resignation of then Sports Minister in the Keating government, Ros Kelly, for essentially the same bad behaviour. The similarities are defining. Kelly allocated $30 million for perceived political advantage, without appropriate documentation - the allocation done by her and her staff was on a "whiteboard", subsequently erased.

A parliamentary committee, with a Labor majority, found that while Kelly's actions were "not illegal", her administration was "deficient". The issue was damaging the Keating government, so he sought her resignation. I suspect that if Morrison leaves this issue to drift until Parliament resumes, a parliamentary committee will again be established, and would be likely to come to an even tougher verdict against McKenzie.

Unfortunately, it is firmly entrenched in the DNA of the National Party, and many other politicians of all persuasions, to treat this and many other projects as little more than "slush funds" to be exploited for their perceived political benefit. I say "perceived" as it is not clear that such spending makes much difference to political outcomes - see the $150,000 to a bowling club in support of Georgina Downer who failed to win back the "family dynasty" seat of Mayo, and the $500,000 to the rowing club in support of Tony Abbott in Warringah who also lost.

By not firing McKenzie, Morrison is admitting the hubris of his ministerial standards - to the voter it stinks!.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.