Philip Gaetjens
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Philip Gaetjens (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Scott Morrison has asked his former chief of staff and longtime Liberal Party staffer Phil Gaetjens, who now heads the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to investigate the Australian National Audit Office’s report on the rorting of the Community Sports Infrastructure Grants program by Nationals minister Bridget McKenzie.

It’s not a full-blown investigation, but limited “to any actions in the application of the statement of ministerial standards”.

That is, Gaetjens won’t look at the probity of deliberately avoiding the Commonwealth’s grant rules and grant platform, or overriding the recommendations of the Sports Commission. Instead, his focus will only be on whether McKenzie breached the government’s guidelines for ministers.

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If Gaetjens does his job independently and properly he’ll take heed of the fact that the statement makes clear ministers “must ensure that they act with integrity … through the lawful and disinterested exercise of the statutory and other powers available to their office [and] appropriate use of the resources available to their office for public purposes”.

They “must observe fairness in making official decisions”, “taking proper account of the merits of the matter,” and “when taking decisions in or in connection with their official capacity … must do so in terms of advancing the public interest”.

That leads to some obvious questions that Gaetjens should look to answer:

  1. How was McKenzie’s behaviour “lawful” when there was no legal authority for allocating $100 million?
  2. How did she observe “fairness” and “taking proper account of the merits of the matter” when applications with considerably less merit were given grants ahead of far more deserving ones, because they were in marginal seats?
  3. How did failing to award grants to more deserving applications “advance the public interest”?
  4. How did McKenzie “promote the observance of these standards by leadership and example in the public bodies for which they are responsible” when she demanded that the Sports Commission override its own act and hand her the power to allocate grants?
  5. How did McKenzie comply with the requirement to give “due consideration to the rights and interests of the persons involved, and the interests of Australia” when she in effect asked sporting and community bodies with strong claims for funding to apply for grants despite their having little chance of success because they were in safe Labor or Coalition seats?

Even a quick glance through the statement reveals a number of requirements that McKenzie could have blatantly breached.

So the referral to Gaetjens has now become a test of him, as well as the government. The stench of a rorted program spreads ever further.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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