At a press conference today, there was a question that Scott Morrison refused to answer. He refused because the latest development in the sports rorts affair reflects very, very badly on him and his government. Also, because there is no good answer.
What the prime minster did not want to talk about is that the former minister for sport, Senator Bridget McKenzie, this morning threw someone under a bus.
In her first statement in several weeks, McKenzie more or less demonstrated that she is no longer willing to have her name dragged through the mud over the continuing scandal. She would be entitled to feel that she did the honourable thing by resigning. For some reason (yet to be determined), she has now decided that someone else should share the blame.
In Senate Estimates this week, it was revealed that on April 11 changes were made to the final list of sports grants recipients. McKenzie today wrote that she did not make any changes after April 4. The reason that this is a major problem for the government is that at the time McKenzie was the minister responsible. And if she wasn’t making the decisions, who was?
She didn’t say.
“I did not make any changes or annotations to this brief or its attachments after 4 April 2019,” she wrote. “My expectation was that the brief would be processed in a timely and appropriate manner. Nevertheless, changes were made and administrative errors occurred in processing the brief.”
The issue now is not just that funds were allocated according to the political objectives of the government, or that the corrupted process involved the prime minister’s office. Or even that some of the projects were ineligible, according to grant guidelines. It has also moved beyond the fact that public monies were being spent according to these political objectives while the caretaker conventions were supposed to apply. The biggest issue now is that we have a minister admitting that while she was legally responsible, she had nothing to do with decisions that were made in her name.
If we accept McKenzie’s statement, the only possible explanations for what occurred on April 11 are these: that someone in her office was independently making changes in her name without her approval; or that the prime minister’s office was dictating these changes.
Morrison, it should be recalled, has regularly sought to distance himself and his office from the controversy, insisting that McKenzie was the sole decision-maker. But given that there were more than 100 emails between the prime minister’s office and McKenzie’s office (and who knows how many phone calls, text messages etc.); and that the prime minister’s office was coordinating the colour-coding of spreadsheets according to political objectives, Morrison’s assertion is, to put it mildly, unlikely to be absolutely truthful.
Given, too, that the PM’s office made direct requests to McKenzie’s office about which projects should be on the final list of grant recipients, on April 11, as Audit Office executive Brian Boyd told Senate Estimates, it’s safe to conclude that the person thrown under a bus by McKenzie this morning was… Scott Morrison.
The reason this is a major problem for Morrison, perhaps more so than everything else, is this: if the legal authority to disburse this Commonwealth money resided with McKenzie and Sport Australia, then another party dictating where this money was to be spent would, according to the relevant Act, be doing it unlawfully.
What’s more, the prime minister then recruited a public servant, the head of his own department, Philip Gaetjens, into an effort to cover it all up. (Gaetjens’ report, which unsurprisingly exonerated the prime minister, is yet to be made public.)
To be blunt, it’s likely that the prime minister’s office unlawfully directed the spending of millions of public dollars in a corrupted scheme to help boost his chances of re-election. Then tried to cover it up. It’s little wonder he doesn’t want to talk about it.