Australian Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Many are calling for Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie to resign, but very few believe it will actually happen.

A recurring theme in coverage of the sports rorting scandal is that shame — of the kind that say, led to former Labor sports minister Ros Kelly’s resignation — is in diminishing supply among the political class.

Kelly faced those same calls after doling out $30 million to electorates chosen by writing their names on a great big whiteboard, and rubbing out contenders. ALP seats received on average double the amount given to marginal Coalition seats. 

The only differences? Firstly, McKenzie allocated $100 million in funding to Coalition electorates or ‘targeted’ electorates. Second, Kelly stepped down after a parliamentary report into the scheme was released, whereas McKenzie has already dismissed calls to quit and refused to apologise.

‘We need a change in ethics’

University of Adelaide professor of public policy Adam Graycar told Crikey that not only are rorting practices not new, they’re also not technically illegal.

“We’ve seen processes disregarded, trust diminished and public value trashed — but no rules were broken and it will go on,” he said. 

What will happen, Graycar speculated, is the Coalition will point at Labor or the Greens and say they’ve done the same thing, before going on the backfoot and saying they’ve done nothing wrong.  

“We don’t need a change in law, we need a change in ethics.”

Legally, a minister can use their discretion to go against the committee’s advice on who should receive funding, Graycar said. But what is missing, he added, is accountability and transparency, forcing ministers to justify their decisions. “The law doesn’t need to change, just the implementation,” he said.

As far as legal mechanisms go, Greens democracy spokesperson Senator Larissa Waters told Crikey the Greens “want a stronger, enforceable ministerial code of conduct that would stop the use of public funds for blatantly political purposes.” She also argued for enforceable parliamentary standards, and a national integrity commission to clean up politics (pointing to bills she had introduced to that effect last year).

“The whole rotten stinking government has to go,” she added. The Greens will call for McKenzie’s resignation today.

Senator Katy Gallagher, Labor spokesperson for finance and the public services told Crikey that Labor would investigate the “apparent dodgy administration surrounding the awarding of these sports grants” and “pursue further questions that must be answered by the minister in public forums”.

‘Trashing of public value’ is not new 

Our long-lost environment minister Sussan Ley faced scrutiny for buying a luxury apartment while on a taxpayer-funded trip to the Gold Coast during her time as health minister in 2017. She defended the purchase as “not planned nor anticipated” and, as she did have one work-related meeting on the coast, did not break any rules. 

George Christensen (who, let’s not forget, called Crikey on his wedding night for a long-winded chat), earned the nickname “Jetset George” for spending an average of 10 weeks a year in the Philippines, charging taxpayers thousands. Save for some public scrutiny, the “member for Manila” walked away largely unscathed. 

In fact, the only minister who has fallen from grace for rorting the system in recent times is former Liberal parliamentary speaker Bronwyn Bishop.

Indeed, Morrison may be mindful that Tony Abbott’s initial support of then-speaker Bronwyn Bishop after her taxpayer-funded helicopter ride was a contributing factor to the sense of calamity and poor judgement that eventually brought Abbott down.

Bishop eventually resigned from her role, and was was dumped by Liberal preselectors only to be snatched up as a commentator for Sky News. It was here, without a hint of irony, she complained about socialism and accused people with “a bit of depression” of “rorting” the disability pension.

How should our politicians be held to account? Send your comments to [email protected] Please include your full name.

Peter Fray

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