By Ross Stitt, 17th January 2020.

The decline of integrity in Australian politics is a long and dispiriting tale. The latest chapter has been written by Senator Bridget McKenzie, and what a sorry chapter it is.

In her previous incarnation as Minister for Sport Senator McKenzie ‘oversaw’ the distribution of $100m of taxpayers’ money under the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program (CSIGP). On Wednesday, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released its findings of an audit into the operation of that program. It makes disturbing reading for anyone interested in good governance and public integrity.

The Auditor-General, Grant Hehir, found that in determining grants the Minister’s office “drew upon considerations other than those identified in the program guidelines” and applied “considerations inconsistent with the published guidelines”. In the third round of funding “One hundred and sixty-seven (73 per cent) of the approved projects had not been recommended by Sport Australia”, the agency tasked with administering the CSIGP. The Auditor-General concluded that the award of funding “was not consistent with the assessed merit of applications” and

“reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 Election”.

In other words, the Auditor-General, an independent officer of Parliament, is saying that the Minister sought to prioritise the electoral benefits for the government over the sporting infrastructure benefits for the community.

The Auditor-General also noted that the Minister informed local government MPs of the grants one to two weeks prior to non-government MPs and even provided the former with a template media release to announce the grants in their electorates. This underlines the then Minister’s blatant motivation for the grant approvals and her determination to ensure that government MPs not waste the opportunity to benefit at the taxpayers’ expense.   

When confronted with this scandal, Senator McKenzie refused to apologise and insisted that “No rules were broken in this program”. Given that the Auditor-General says that the program guidelines were not properly followed, the Senator appears to draw a very subtle distinction between breaking rules and not following guidelines.      

Whatever the legal niceties, can anyone seriously suggest that the Senator’s actions were acceptable? The Senator put the government’s political interests above the interests of the people who the government was elected to represent. From a moral and ethical perspective if not a legal one, that can never be acceptable. It would certainly not pass the fabled Australian pub test. One can only imagine the reaction of those unsuccessful grant applicants that had a better case on the merits but were in the wrong electorate.

The response of the current Sports Minister, Richard Colbeck, to the ANAO report was breathtaking in its audacity. Referring to Sports Australia, the Minister boldly announced that “the government will continue to work with the board and senior management to implement the measures the agency is putting in place to strengthen future grant delivery”. It’s not clear whether he was suggesting that Sports Australia did something wrong or just reassuring the public that future grants will be safe in the government’s capable hands.

No doubt Senator McKenzie, the deputy leader of the Nationals, will seek to brazen out the scandal. The government will make no admissions and hope that something else turns up soon to distract the public’s attention. Sadly, this ‘move along, nothing to see here’ strategy may well be successful. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister must recognise that Senator McKenzie’s continuation as Minister for Agriculture would undermine the public’s confidence in the integrity of the administration of drought and bushfire grants. 

Of course, pork barrel politics is not new in Australia. In 2016 the Grattan Institute published a detailed report on government spending on transport infrastructure. It found that “too much money has been spent on the wrong projects in the wrong places”. Governments have bypassed the places needing infrastructure “to spend in states or electorates where federal elections are won and lost”. The disheartening conclusion – “Too often, politics comes ahead of the national interest”.                  

The good news, if you can call it that, is that many voters see through dishonest politicians.  Unfortunately, the result is cynical voters and the erosion of trust in politics.  This matters because trust in politics is vital to a healthy democracy and it is a rapidly dwindling resource in Australia. Politicians like Senator McKenzie think it is clever to use the instruments of government and taxpayer money to achieve an unfair advantage over their opponents. They are either unaware of, or indifferent to, the damage they do to our democracy.         

No one has captured Australia’s predicament better than Tony Fitzgerald, the former judge who led an inquiry into political corruption in Queensland.  

The established parties … are controlled by professional, ‘whatever it takes’ politicians driven by self-interest and ideology … .  To them, political ethics is merely an amusing oxymoron. 

The only viable solution to this predicament is a National Integrity Commission along the lines proposed by the Centre for Public Integrity. It would scrutinise the operations of government and the public sector and investigate and expose political corruption. By fulfilling this function, it would restore public trust in the government and the political system.

The need for a National Integrity Commission has never been greater. Until we have one, politicians will continue to misbehave with impunity.