By Katie Burgess, originally published in Canberra Times 17th January 2020.
Nationals leader Michael McCormack is standing by his deputy Bridget McKenzie, as a former director of public prosecutions says her misuse of sports grants highlights the need for a federal integrity commission.
Senator McKenzie flatly rejected calls to resign on Thursday, after a damning report from the Australian Auditor-General found her office made up its own rules for doling out sporting grants and blatantly targeted marginal and in-play seats ahead of the last election.
“If anything, there’s a case of reverse pork barrelling going on,” she said.
“If you look at the intervention that my decisions, as minister, made to the projects that were actually delivered on, originally there was something like 26 per cent of those projects recommended were heading into Labor Party electorates.
“The reality is, thanks to my decision-making as minister, 34 per cent of the projects delivered went into Labor Party electorates. So, in fact, my intervention actually increased the number of projects being delivered to local sporting clubs in Labor Party electorates.”
Mr McCormack also locked in behind the now-Agriculture Minister, saying she had his “full support”.
“I believe the outcomes delivered in her capacity as Sports Minister have made a significant difference to the recipient communities,” Mr McCormack said.
“This program has a proven record of delivering long-term benefits to communities across Australia.”
But Mr Cowdery said the audit’s findings were “shocking”.
“It’s political pork barrelling of the worst kind,” Mr Cowdery said.
Mr Cowdery – an associate with the Centre of Public Integrity, which is pushing for a tougher integrity commission than the one proposed by the Coalition – said it proved the need for a federal anti-corruption body.
“The need for a [federal integrity commission] is not going away, it’s increasing, as new revelations are made about inappropriate conduct by politicians and people associated with them,” Mr Cowdery said.
“Events of this kind demonstrate even more strongly as time goes by the need for a national integrity commission to be established with broad powers of inquiry into the use of public funds and the conduct of politicians and other associated people.”
Mr Cowdery said it was unlikely the activity uncovered by the audit office would be captured under the proposed integrity commission, which would have no power to make findings against parliamentarians or their staff or force them to face public hearings.
“The lame duck proposal by the government would not be effective in addressing situation of this kind, probably deliberately so,” Mr Cowdery said.
“The important message to emphasise is at a national level we need the kind of protection we now have at a state level right across the country.
“There’s no excuse for government at a national level to be exempt from the sort of scrutiny that applies to governments at.”
But Senator McKenzie remained adamant she had doled out the grants appropriately.
“This is a highly successful program that’s delivering real benefits on the ground to community sporting clubs, so that parents and kids can get out there and get active, adopt a healthy lifestyle, rather than actually having to do fundraising at Bunnings every Saturday,” Senator McKenzie said.