The prime minister’s determination to defend the indefensible – the rorting of the $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Grants Program – is getting harder to understand. It is one thing to ride out a scandal, but it’s another to allow the scandal to grow without end, as is now happening. Hundreds of grants are coming under scrutiny, a Senate inquiry is hearing damning evidence (which the PM must have known was coming), and the political consequences are mushrooming, with key crossbencher Jacqui Lambie threatening to make support for other aspects of the government’s agenda conditional on release of public service chief Philip Gaetjens’ report into the matter. There can be only one reasonable conclusion: the prime minister is deeply, personally implicated and has no alternative but to brazen this out, for as long as it takes. As manager of Opposition business Tony Burke said at the end of Question Time today, all roads lead to the prime minister. Or, as he thundered yesterday, “He is up to his neck in it, this prime minister – up to his neck in a corrupt scheme.”
Who can now remember the jolly Steven Bradbury–like prime minister who came through the middle, lucked into the top job, called the rest of his colleagues “a muppet show”, adopted a daggy-dad persona and won an election apparently almost single-handedly? It’s not just that Scott Morrison’s honeymoon ended over the “black summer” – honeymoons always end – but that the prime minister is allowing himself to be tainted, perhaps permanently, by the perception of corruption. It is hard to recall the last time a prime minister was so personally implicated in a scandal – the kerfuffle over Paul Keating’s interest in a piggery, perhaps, but there was no taxpayer money at stake or electoral gain involved there.
Today, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese accused the prime minister of repeatedly misleading the parliament, after Sport Australia gave evidence to the Senate inquiry confirming that concerns about the program were raised with former sports minister Bridget McKenzie in March, and after the National Audit Office and Sport Australia had both confirmed that the projects were approved on April 11 – the day the 2019 election was called. “Why was the brief approving the project backdated by the government by a week to April 4?” asked Albanese. “Didn’t the government know the decision was dodgy, and it was trying to cover its tracks?”
Morrison replied that Albanese was being “completely untruthful”, and as the Opposition kept hammering away, the PM fell back on the bullet-proof reply: “I don’t accept the leader of the Opposition’s mischaracterisation of this at all.” The answer to an unwelcome question is to reject the premise, or, in this case, the mischaracterisation, but never to answer it. This is bad politics: the public will simply and naturally assume the worst. Of course, they will assume the worst of the Opposition as well – and Morrison is at pains to bring up Albanese’s evidence at the trial of corrupt former NSW minister Eddie Obeid at every opportunity. As Jacqui Lambie told the ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning, for the PM to stoop to mudslinging only makes him look guilty. Rorting taxpayer funds, backdating documents, breaching caretaker conventions, misleading parliament… the combined effect is to tarnish both the government and the PM himself. Morrison needs some kind of circuit-breaker, a way out of this, and there is no sign of one on the horizon.