Smoking gun over sports rorts? So what. Prime Minister Scott Morrison admits nothing, apologises for nothing, and just continues to defy any accountability for telling manifest untruths about the role of his office in the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program. We now know, straight from the evidence in Senate Estimates, that the prime minister’s office was deciding which grants would be awarded, and which wouldn’t – even after the election was called, in a clear breach of the caretaker convention. Morrison continues to defy accountability, even though he surely knows that we know his office was in the thick of the rorting of the scheme, because he is betting that the public have tarred all politicians with the same brush a long time ago. To make sure of it, in his own defence in Question Time, the PM threw some dirt back at Labor, about an apparent breach in 2013, claiming $6.5 million in government advertisements targeting people-smugglers were running in The Sydney Morning Herald in the caretaker period, and saying the Opposition leader “can only throw mud because he sits in a puddle of mud”. That’s it. A kindergarten-grade debate, in our national parliament.
To backtrack a little, Labor came into Question Time today convinced that last night’s Senate Estimates testimony from the Australian National Audit Office’s Brian Boyd was a smoking gun, including that changes were still being made to the list of funded projects “at the request of the prime minister’s office” after the election was called on the morning of April 11. As Opposition business manager Tony Burke said in a fiery doorstop this morning: “One project that was going to make the cut was cut. One project that was going to miss out suddenly finds its way in. And then, at 12.46, hours after we had entered caretaker, another nine projects get added and another project misses out. All the time, while Scott Morrison is claiming that he had nothing to do with it, his office is directing Senator McKenzie to make changes and those changes were made.” The prime minister has repeatedly said – and said again in the parliament today – that the only involvement of his office was to pass on information to then sports minister Bridget McKenzie, supposedly the ultimate decision-maker. Burke said that not only was this misleading, it was a breach of the caretaker convention.
“Let’s not forget why caretaker exists,” said Burke. “The caretaker provisions are there to stop governments from using taxpayers’ money as though it belongs to their political party during a campaign. Those rules were broken. Those rules were broken in a sports rorts scandal that has shown a corrupt process going all the way through, office after office, right through to the office of the prime minister of Australia. People have wondered up till now, will there be a smoking gun? Will there be proof of the involvement of the prime minister of Australia? Last night we got there.”
At a minimum, the prime minister should correct the record, Burke said. Fat chance. When the evidence from Senate Estimates was put to him in parliament in question after question by Anthony Albanese today, the PM either threw mud back or rejected Albanese’s assertions, or refused to answer because the Labor leader was simply restating information that was before the Senate – every tactic in the book, in short, to insist black was white. And using the government’s numbers to again crush the final inevitable censure motion, Morrison got away with it.
Worse, we have been here before – just last night in fact, when Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor sat smugly through an interview on ABC’s 7.30, unbelievably claiming some vindication from the fact that two police forces had looked at the alleged doctoring of the City of Sydney document that was provided to The Daily Telegraph, even though we learnt this week the AFP declined to investigate and interviewed neither him nor Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
Worst of all worsts, there is not even light at the end of the tunnel because, if you listen carefully to Attorney-General Christian Porter on RN Breakfast this morning, we can be fairly confident that the government’s proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission would not be able to investigate the kind of behaviour we have seen with both the sports rorts affair or #angusgate.
One thing is certain: changing the government will not be enough. It will take structural reform to end the worsening cycle of trashing the parliament and trashing the office of prime minister.