The fate of embattled Nationals deputy Bridget McKenzie’s ministerial career lies in the hands of Australia’s top public servant, as the Prime Minister seeks to shield himself from the sports-rorts fallout.
There is a sense of irony in Scott Morrison’s decision to effectively outsource the decision about Senator McKenzie to the very public service she ignored when handing out $100 million worth of grants to sports clubs before last year’s federal election.
But in asking Philip Gaetjens, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to investigate whether the Senator breached ministerial standards, Mr Morrison has tried to distance himself from the scandal while giving himself the political cover he would need to get rid of her from Cabinet.
It is telling that Mr Morrison referred the whole affair to Mr Gaetjens last Friday but only revealed he had done so yesterday (after the latest bombshell story broke). His patience is wearing thin.
But even in his role as Prime Minister, Mr Morrison has little to no control over the National Party and any decision to sack Senator McKenzie would ultimately have to be made by its leader, Michael McCormack.
His Nationals colleagues privately question whether he would have the fortitude to do that.
At this stage, there is a broad view that unless there is a dramatic development (like an adverse finding by Mr Gaetjens) Senator McKenzie can survive this scandal.
She has been badly damaged but as one Coalition MP put it to the ABC: “It’s in nobody’s interests for her to go.”
Think of the house of MP cards that could collapse if she were to take the fall for a program that delivered money to so many of her colleagues’ electorates, from the Prime Minister’s down.
“If this was done in concert with the Prime Minister’s office, it’ll be hard to hang her out,” another Coalition MP said.
So while colleagues have privately criticised her “clumsy handling” of the program (a kind characterisation when compared with the Auditor General’s), they do not believe she has committed a “sackable offence”.
What this saga has done is bring to the surface simmering tensions within the Nationals about their party’s leadership.
Mr McCormack and Senator McKenzie face ongoing internal accusations of being weak and ineffective and this latest scandal has only exacerbated those concerns.
As one Nationals MP said: “It’s a reflection on [Mr McCormack’s] leadership.”
That, in turn, has frustrated Liberals who want their junior Coalition colleagues to resolve leadership issues and stop sucking oxygen from the Government’s agenda.
“The biggest liability for the Government is the Nationals,” said a Liberal source.
These kinds of political machinations resonate far more in Canberra than they do with voters in the rest of the country, many of whom would be emerging from holidays and switched off from the daily news cycle, or picking up the pieces after devastating bushfires.
So, both timing and apathy about politics are helping the Coalition’s case right now.
In a fortnight all of that will change when Federal Parliament resumes for a busy month of sittings.
The Opposition is already making daily demands for the Minister’s resignation and will seize every opportunity on the floor of Parliament to pin down the Prime Minister, Mr McCormack and Senator McKenzie on the controversial program.
How $100m in sports grants backfired
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And Labor can go further by gathering support for a Senate inquiry and calling witnesses like Mr Gaetjens to publicly appear, potentially having just conducted an inquiry into Senator McKenzie’s conduct.
The prospect of that is making Liberals nervous.
Almost pre-empting the political barney, the Government has been slowly shifting its strategy.
From strongly defending the Minister, and insisting no rules were broken, to acknowledging the concerns raised by the Auditor General and now, talking up the number of Labor electorates that also received grants.
“The effect of Senator McKenzie’s decisions had been to increase the number of grants in ALP seats from 26 to 34 per cent,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said yesterday.
Tar them all with the same brush.
The best case for scenario for the Coalition — at the end of this sorry saga — is that voters will be left confused, and with the view that all politicians are as bad as each other.