Why the ‘sports rorts’ minister has to go

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“Labor Minister Ros Kelly fell on her sword in 1994 over the original ‘sports rorts affair’. With such a clear precedent, it is surprising that Minister McKenzie and her staff were prepared to be so brazen,” writes politics columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

RORTS pork-barrelling or corruption, under whatever guise, is an abuse of a responsible, representative government. 

Michael Moore.

Trust in Australian politics and our democracy has already deteriorated to an extraordinarily low level with only 12 per cent of Australians believing the government is run for “all the people”. And it is set to decline further unless there is a major change in attitude by politicians.

The ministerial code of conduct is now just a paper tiger, as illustrated following the shenanigans of Angus Taylor who, despite all, held on to his portfolio. 

Bridget McKenzie has taken “toughing it out” to a whole new level. While she refuses to resign and the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister refuse to demand appropriate accountable behaviour, the future bodes ill for our democracy.

Many Canberrans remember popular local Labor member and Minister for Sport, Ros Kelly, finally falling on her sword in 1994 over the original “sports rorts affair”. 

With such a clear precedent, it is surprising that Minister McKenzie and her staff were prepared to be so brazen. Blatant targeting of marginal seats should be an anathema to a responsible government. If the ministerial code was taken seriously, decisions would, according to the code, advance the “the common good of the people of Australia”. 

Credit goes to Auditor-General Grant Hehir and his office for a report reflecting the high level of integrity expected from the public service. The department also acted with integrity, providing the minister with a prioritised list of carefully considered applications assessed against a set of predetermined criteria. 

This is normal practice of astute public servants acting in the public interest. It is in marked contrast to the barefaced and inappropriate behaviour practised by McKenzie as then-Minister for Sport.

The public-interest criteria were put aside, ejected in favour of partisan political advantage. Taxpayers’ money granted for personal advancement, the advancement of the Coalition parties and in the interest of specific candidates. 

This pre-election rorting provided largesse designed to sway the attitudes of voters in targeted marginal electorates.

Ironically, this misuse of taxpayer dollars was made by a hypocritical government which has made a religion of singing the praises of less taxes, through better management of money. 

The blatancy of the rorts reflected both the Coalition’s desperation at election time and sense of entitlement. On the day the election was announced, NSW south coast Nationals candidate Katrina Hodgkinson even posed with a giant “novelty” cheque for nearly half a million dollars as a grant for local netball courts. SA Liberal candidate Georgina Downer did a similar stunt in the town of Yankalilla.

Although these candidates did not win their seats, the intention was clear. And it is difficult to tell just how much impact this rorting had on other marginal seats, whether held by the Coalition or by Labor.

McKenzie is a National Party Senator and Deputy Leader of the party. Her immediate boss is Michael McCormack who, like the Prime Minister, has made a choice to support the “tough-it-out” stance adopted by the Minister. She must go. With so many of their strong senators and MPs stepping down at the last election, the replacement choices are pretty thin.

The McKenzie sports-rort affair will not go away as easily as the government hopes. Although the minister in question dismisses the Senate, the cross-bench members of both houses of parliament find the actions appalling. There will be a follow up.

Already Senators Rex Patrick, of the Centre Alliance, independent Jacqui Lambie and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson have made clear their disapproval. The Greens and Labor have been calling for an anti-corruption and integrity commission and will, rightly, use this rorting opportunistically to pursue such a commission vigorously.

As part of the process it appears most likely that all non-government senators and MPs will be calling for Bridget McKenzie to resign or be removed by the Prime Minister. If trust in our democracy is to be reinstated, even to a small extent, she must step aside or be stepped aside.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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