Newly restored cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Far more than their Liberal colleagues or their Labor opponents, federal National MPs star in scandals and rorts involving maladministration. Bridget McKenzie is only the most recent Nationals minister exposed for misusing programs.

McKenzie was also on the Nationals-dominated “ministerial panel” that overturned departmental recommendations for funding under the Regional Jobs and Investment Package and directed it to Coalition seats, in a program run by Nationals leader Michael McCormack.

There were also serial scandals in the agriculture portfolio while it was run by Barnaby Joyce. This included water buybacks; water theft in the Murray-Darling (Joyce’s NSW Nationals counterpart, Niall Blair, was the state minister); Joyce being condemned by a royal commission that examined the Murray-Darling Basin Plan; an abandonment of animal welfare regulation of live exports that was so egregious the government itself condemned it; Joyce’s interference in the Farm Deposit Scheme; and the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Joyce’s own electorate.

In the Howard years, Nationals MPs serially rorted regional grants programs in the 2001-04 and 2004-07 parliaments before the Australian National Audit Office’s (ANAO) savage report on the Regional Partnerships program erupted during the 2007 election. The Nationals’ tendency to rorting seems to go beyond one or two miscreants or normal partisanship to something entrenched in the culture of the party that is absent from the Liberals or Labor.

The Nationals are unique in Australian politics in being the only party that is sectional in its very nature. The label “Nationals” is wholly ironic, because the one thing the Nationals are not, that every other party — Liberal, Labor, Greens, One Nation, whatever — is, is national in their political philosophy.

The raison d’être of the Nationals is to support one section of Australia, specifically rural communities and primary industries, especially agriculture, though not if that affects the interests of mining companies. Other parties may favour one interest or another as a result of pressure from their memberships, from donations, from lobbying; but only the Nationals are designed, as a party, to serve a sectional interest.

This has never confined itself to supporting economic policies that produce the most conducive environment for rural communities. Indeed, there’s a clear tension between economic efficiency and the interests of the National Party and its constituents: the more efficient and productive agriculture is, the fewer people it employs, and the more corporations (rather than family farmers) run farms. This adds to the demographic and economic pressure on smaller regional towns.

Instead, the Nationals prefer to channel taxpayer funds to their constituents — which requires programs that favour constituents over non-constituents, and some constituents over others. Allocation of resources to sectional interests must automatically include an element of political thinking because not all sectional interests, and not all constituents, are equal.

That’s likely why the programs overseen by Nationals ministers in the Howard years, already directed at regional Australia, were further rorted by those ministers. The Howard government had significantly increased regional program funding in response to the rise of One Nation, and given itself huge discretion in administering it. The program at the heart of the famous “regional rorts” audit in 2007, the Regional Partnerships program, was described by the ANAO as “a very flexible discretionary grants programme. It has broadly based assessment criteria, and projects are subject to continuous assessment rather than being considered through structured funding rounds”.

But that wasn’t enough for Nationals ministers. As the ANAO pointed out:

Ministers were more likely to approve funding for ‘not recommended’ projects that had been submitted by applicants in electorates held by the Liberal and National parties and more likely to not approve funding for ‘recommended’ projects that had been submitted by applicants in electorates held by the Labor Party.

But Bridget McKenzie’s political needs were those of a minority government that needed to win seats in order to survive, not the Howard government with a big majority. Thus her rorting was to target marginal seats, both Coalition and Labor-held. Safe Coalition seats missed out, though not to the same extent safe Labor seats missed out.

This was not a personal failing by McKenzie or her staff. This is a Nationals minister doing exactly what they believe their job is: siphon away taxpayer funding to their political priorities regardless of probity or good practice.

This is why the Nationals oppose a federal integrity commission — they understand that it poses a direct threat to their entire purpose. Federal Nationals MPs want Nationals ministers specifically excluded from the remit of a federal integrity body so they can rort programs with impunity.

Barnaby Joyce incoherently but accurately railed about an integrity body “every time you do something, it has the potential to call corruption — when it’s actually a political decision to bring some parity to people in regional areas”.

The ANAO, which has repeatedly exposed Nationals ministers over the decades, routinely talks about risk assessment and risk management. Understanding the risks to effective administration and how to mitigate them is a basic part of good public sector administration.

Best practice would suggest that the ANAO, and all public sector agencies, should treat the presence of a Nationals minister as an automatic risk to probity, efficiency and good management.