Once the Bridget McKenzie grant approval story broke a week ago, it was never going to go away. The revelation the then sport minister and her office diverged from the considered recommendations of the Australian Sports Commission to produce an outcome that favoured Coalition-held and target seats was an open invitation to hostile journos to keep digging. And dig they have.
So it was no surprise to read in The SMAge yesterday that before last May’s election McKenzie approved a $35,000 grant to the Wangaratta Clay Target Club in the Coalition target seat of Indi, a club which boasted well ahead of the election that McKenzie joined “as a full fee-paying member” – a membership not declared in McKenzie’s Register of Interests. That she, despite the Club’s own statement, has sought to claim the membership sub was a “gift” and under the declaration limit, only compounded her previous woeful excuse-making.
On what we now know, the minister can get off this excruciatingly painful hook only if one of three exculpatory facts can be proved:
- She approved the Wangaratta grant on the express instructions of a more senior minister – highly unlikely.
- She did recuse herself from approving this particular grant – on all available information at the moment it appears she did not; or
- The grant was on the Australian Sports Commission’s actual recommended list provided to the minister on 8 November 2018 – a list that hasn’t yet been made public and is unlikely to be unless it’s leaked.
McKenzie was on thin ice before this latest revelation. That ice is cracking. A Labor and crossbench-supported Senate inquiry likely will widen the cracks still further, and distract attention from the government’s agenda and reputation rebuilding in the run-up to the Budget. To use Second World war forces acronyms, McKenzie’s situation is moving beyond SNAFU to FUBAR.
Contrary to the howls of the baying Twitter mobs and the #auspolsocorrupt brigade, there’s no suggestion of corruption or illegality on McKenzie’s part. The Australian National Audit Office noted that any ineligible applications, in terms of the grant programme’s guidelines, were approved. Some have said, however, that in promoting the government’s electoral interests, McKenzie was doing what was expected of her politically rather than being incompetent.
Now she doesn’t even have that excuse: by approving the Wangaratta club’s grant without thinking through the consequences, she is simply incompetent, a blunderbuss in the ministerial rifle club.
Anthony Albanese’s having free kick after free kick over McKenzie, aided by a mainstream media keen to keep up the pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and a feral social media mob baying for Coalition blood not only for the perceived misjudgments of the last month, but last May’s election boilover. That he’s getting away with not committing Labor to never pork-barrelling in government doesn’t matter: all he has to do is feed the media beast with what they want him to say. Albanese knows this is political manna to a still-dazed Opposition wandering the wilderness just as the political year really starts up.
As the McKenzie drip feed continues, the PM needs to make a ruthless judgment: hold on to a beleaguered minister because she’s a valued net contributor to the team, or cast her loose because she’s more trouble than she’s worth?
You may well say McKenzie is a Nationals minister, and therefore she’s Nats leader Michael McCormack’s problem, not the PM’s. Yes, but she is also the whole government’s problem, casting unwelcome shade on the Coalition’s claims to be superior to Labor in policy and governance. The PM, therefore, is taking unwanted reputational hits for her mismanagement that, after his horror stretch these past five weeks, he simply doesn’t need. And if she’s still there when parliament resumes and the Senate inquiry into McKenzie goes ahead, she risks becoming a ministerial albatross in the government’s crucial implementation year of the electoral cycle, a distraction drowning out the government’s positive agenda and messages when clear air is essential.
Blunderbuss Bridget blundered in taking personal control and overly politicising this $100 million grant allocation process, even though her intervention was within the programme guidelines. She has since compounded her predicament by her cack-handed attempts to talk her way out of trouble, and this latest revelation makes things even worse. She is becoming an embarrassment to her Liberal and National colleagues, and every day she stays in her post is another free kick for her media and political antagonists.
Early yesterday evening, Morrison sensibly announced he has referred McKenzie’s decision-making, including the Wangaratta revelation, to the head of his department to determine whether she has breached the ministerial code of conduct. She will probably get off on her general decision-making. But unless she can prove she’s covered by any of the three exculpatory factors above for “Wang”, it’s still in the best interests of the Morrison government, and the Coalition, for McKenzie to clear her ministerial desk before parliament resumes in February, coupled with the PM announcing a clean-up, and preferably a repudiation, of the wide array of taxpayer-funded and politicised (“but hey, it’s ok because everyone does it”) community grants programmes that have, over the years, scandalised and brought down better ministers than McKenzie.
Labor and the media pack may hypocritically gloat over a ministerial scalp, but a McKenzie resignation before parliament resumes will take the heat out of the issue, limit the government’s political damage and at least give a chastened McKenzie credit for honourably taking one for the team, with the possibility of future ministerial redemption before too long.
If the PM or McCormack won’t fire her, Blunderbuss Bridget should fire herself.
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