The view from Billinudgel

Foul play
The PM’s defence of the sports rorts saga debases democracy

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stopped even pretending to mount a coherent defence of his sports-rorts plagued administration.

From the moment the Australian National Audit Office report arrived, the verdict was damning. The system had been sabotaged, public funds had been subverted, and convention and even law set aside in the name of party-political advantage.

As more details emerged, Morrison’s already threadbare defences were swept aside as it was comprehensively and forensically proved they were not only misleading but were in fact deliberate untruths designed to conceal an egregious disgrace of the kind that used to shake and even topple governments.

We were told that all the grants signed off by the then sport minister, Bridget McKenzie, were eligible – until they weren’t. The government followed the caretaker convention – until it didn’t. The PM’s office was never directly involved in the decision-making process – until it was. This was all shown conclusively in evidence given in Senate Estimates.

But the prime minister is utterly unconcerned: he has his story and he is sticking to it, and that is all that needs to be said, or, more often, shouted across the parliament. The pork has been delivered; now for the porky pies.

What is delicately described as misleading the parliament – what most people would call telling barefaced lies – used to be a hanging offence. Ministers cannot usually survive it, and even their leaders are vulnerable – more than one state premier has been forced to resign when called to account, even when they have been guilty of little more than lapses of memory.

Morrison cannot plead that excuse: he knows very well what he is saying, and is not resiling from it. His actions are, quite simply, unconscionable. His malfeasance should be terminal, or at the very least seriously damaging, and his obstinacy should do no more than delay the inevitable backdown, as has happened so often in the past.

But he is not for turning, and this is probably more than blind pig-headedness. There is at least an element of the rat-cunning he has used to propel himself up the greasy totem pole while feigning to have done no more than take advantage of circumstances determined by others, the ones without his squeaky-clean hands.

In this scenario, Morrison calculates that once the initial corruption had been revealed, subsequent disclosures would not materially alter the issue – the smoking gun is already lying beside the blood-stained corpse of good government, so if he can finesse his way past this blatant misdeed, he will survive.

But finesse is the wrong word – he depends on bluff and bluster, which have apparently worked. The more the accusations escalate, the less interested the voters appear. They know the government is crook – many had factored that in before the scandal erupted, and those who hadn’t are hardly surprised.

Exactly how, where and when the government became crook is irrelevant: details about precise times and places only confuse the issue. As Morrison correctly surmises, voters have other worries, more pressing ones than the knowledge that their government is on the take – after all, aren’t all governments?

Cynical, dangerous and deeply dishonest. But it works. Such are the rewards of debasing democracy.

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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