Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Bridget benched
Bridget McKenzie’s resignation from cabinet is too little, too late

Source: Twitter

So Bridget McKenzie’s fingernails have finally been pried loose – but frankly, who cares? Too little, too late.

It’s a situation that former prime minister Tony Abbott would be familiar with: when then speaker Bronwyn Bishop became embroiled in the choppergate scandal in 2015, he mounted a stubborn and futile defence.

In comparison to the sports rorts affair, Bishop’s offence was relatively minor: greed and arrogance, a belief in her entitlement to bend the rules for personal convenience. McKenzie’s malfeasance was far more egregious and deserves to be called actually corrupt – the subversion of public funds to secure party political advantage.

And it was an open and shut case, with a smoking gun still clutched in her own hands. The auditor-general’s report left no room for excuses.

And yet, like Abbott before him, Prime Minister Scott Morrison thought he could spin his way out of trouble, with nearly three agonising weeks of increasingly incredible justifications, distractions and downright absurdities – the line about saving girls from having to change behind the shed, when one of the grants went to a club to help pay for female change rooms, despite the club not fielding a women’s team, was the most parodic.

In the end, Morrison and McKenzie, like Abbott, had to fall back on the old and totally discredited line: she didn’t actually break any rules. To which every punter in every pub will reasonably reply that if she didn’t – and this is still dubious – then the rules are a farce and a scam themselves.

The public, and not just those communities and teams who have been dudded through this process – and there are plenty of those – know damn well that if they are caught for the smallest discrepancy by the government, whether the tax office or Centrelink, they will be smashed, humiliated, stripped of their supposedly immoral earnings, and subjected to stringent penalties.

McKenzie, who was caught misappropriating more than $100 million, was not only exonerated but applauded for delivering a program praised, unsurprisingly, by the lucky winners in the marginal seats. Her situation was, as everyone, including Morrison, realised, untenable.

So he appointed a hand-picked bureaucratic crony to do the execution he lacked the guts to perform himself. And unsurprisingly, Phil Gaetjens came up with an anodyne finding that allowed McKenzie to resign from cabinet while absolving the government of any guilt over the main issue. The auditor-general was effectively ignored. Morrison saved face, but lost any semblance of integrity and credibility in the process.

So why did he expend so much of his diminishing stock of political capital defending the indefensible? Presumably because sacking McKenzie was too hard. Not just because she is a Nat, and her embattled party leader, Michael McCormack, was desperate not to lose her support, but perhaps also because she knew how much the prime minister’s own office had been conniving and cooperating in the rort.

The chance of a quick, clean cut to isolate the infection quickly passed; and the constant leaking of new details, many rumoured to be coming from within McKenzie’s own ranks, possibly involving the still ambitious Barnaby Joyce, would not abate until she was finally cut loose.

But, as with Abbott and Bishop, it was too little and too late. The damage has already been done. The only question is how long and how far it spreads.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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