The Politics    Monday, February 3, 2020

Minor mayhem

By Paddy Manning

Minor mayhem

© Marc Tewksbury / AAP Image

Suddenly, both the Nats and the Greens are in limbo

The resignation of Bridget McKenzie as agriculture minister and deputy leader of the Nationals means the leadership of the junior Coalition partner is up for grabs at tomorrow’s partyroom meeting in Canberra – whether leader Michael McCormack says there is a vacancy or not. The antics of Barnaby Joyce, whose hand went straight up for the leadership this morning, serves as a useful distraction for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is desperate to put the sports rorts affair and a disastrous summer behind him. He was helped today by the surprise resignation of Greens leader Richard Di Natale who, after five years in the job and a tough knee operation, has stepped down and will soon quit parliament. The Greens party room will also decide on a leader tomorrow, and Melbourne MP Adam Bandt is the frontrunner – it is possible that only the deputy’s position will be contested. Tomorrow could prove to be another moment in the polarisation of Australian politics, with the Nationals inching further right and the Greens further left. 

How good is distraction? It may suit the prime minister for the media to get temporarily consumed by feverish leadership speculation, but there are too many outstanding questions about sports rorts, and too much anger, for it to be quickly forgotten. It is outrageous to have a former political staffer to the prime minister, his departmental secretary Phil Gaetjens, give the okay to the $100 million Community Sports Infrastructure grants program in a report that will remain secret. Talk about failing the pub test. It is doubly outrageous to have the PM and Deputy PM McCormack pretend there was nothing wrong about the way McKenzie exercised her ministerial discretion over the scheme, when the Australian National Audit Office already told us there was. As constitutional expert Anne Twomey wrote in this excellent piece, there are a number of clear legal constraints when exercising ministerial discretion, which minister McKenzie failed to meet.

It is triply outrageous for the prime minister, having blathered on about high ministerial standards as he dispensed with the services of McKenzie for failing to disclose a $300 gun club membership, to leave Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor on the front bench, when he (a) failed to disclose his connection to a Cayman Islands company that received $80 million from the Commonwealth in a buyback that delivered no water, (b) failed to disclose his interest in the Jam Land company that stood to benefit from removal of restrictions on grass clearing that he was lobbying for, and (c) may well be subject of a police investigation into provision of forged documents to The Daily Telegraph in an attempt to embarrass Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. It seems that there is one rule for McKenzie, but quite another rule for Taylor.

Compounding this triple-outrage are fresh revelations that a regional infrastructure grants program administered by the deputy prime minister awarded 94 per cent of its grants to electorates held or targeted by the Coalition in the months leading up to the election. Labor has reiterated its commitment to a Senate inquiry into the sports rorts affair. It may need to expand the terms of reference. Regardless of who wins in the Nationals party room tomorrow, a federal ICAC with proper teeth cannot come soon enough.

As for the Greens, Di Natale’s resignation completes a bruising five-year stint as leader in which the party almost tore itself apart – in fact one of his proudest achievements is to have kept the show together. For all the internal strife, the party retained all six Senate seats up for grabs at the last election, and if it gets the same vote next time around could be in line to add two or three seats and take the balance of power. The Greens are travelling well in Newspoll after a “black summer” has put climate change once again at the top of everyone’s mind. So far co-deputy Bandt is the only person in the 10-strong party room to nominate, and the other co-deputy, Larissa Waters, has confirmed she will stand for her current position again. If he wins the ballot tomorrow – or emerges as the uncontested leader – Bandt will campaign for the kind of radical “Green New Deal” pushed by US Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, currently leading the polls ahead of tomorrow’s Iowa caucus, and backed by climate scientists.

Former leader Christine Milne paid tribute to Di Natale’s leadership this afternoon. “I think Richard’s done a fantastic job and he is leaving at a time when he has set the Greens on a good path, especially in the midst of this climate emergency, and that’s the number-one issue for him and it will be for the next leader.” Milne wished whoever took on the role well, and said the Greens had never before had such widespread support for tough action on climate change. “This is the moment for the Greens,” she said. “It’s now or never.” 

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“For many journalists, myself included, there is usually a comforting distance between ourselves and the trauma and sadness we cover. We can empathise, but we don’t usually have to live it. One of the things I learnt this summer is that this space collapses under a climate-changed world.”

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“In the end, Morrison and McKenzie 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.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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