(Image: AAP/Alan Porritt)

Nationals, it seems, never go easily.

Barnaby Joyce lashed out furiously at Malcolm Turnbull even as a sex scandal ended his role as deputy prime minister in early 2018.

Ultimately Joyce was forced out not by an irrelevant marriage breakdown but serious allegations — still unresolved — of sexual harassment against him.

But he inflicted plenty of damage on Turnbull on the way out, even if his departure did herald the start of a turnaround in Turnbull’s polling after a rotten 2017.

Now Bridget McKenzie, caught red-handed engaging in the most egregious political rorting of taxpayer funding ever seen, is inflicting similar harm — even if she isn’t holding media conferences to attack her prime minister, Joyce-style.

Despite blatantly breaching the core principles of the ministerial standards, McKenzie will only be sacked if a specific issue of conflict of interest can be stood up in relation to ministerial standards — the equivalent of charging Al Capone with tax evasion.

The whole community sports infrastructure grants program was a conflict of interest, no matter what gun clubs McKenzie was a member of.

And that sacking will only happen if Morrison decides the cost of keeping McKenzie outweighs the cost of cutting her loose.

The cost of keeping her is the stench of corruption that pervades this government.

Not NSW Labor-style corruption, where personal enrichment becomes the light on the hill for ministers, party officials and powerful factional players, but systemic abuse of taxpayer funds and the resources of the state to protect and assist the ruling party and the powerful interests that fund it.

Normally the cost would also include the extent to which the scandal was distracting from the government’s agenda, “sucking the political oxygen” from its messaging, as journalists love to say.

But the government has no agenda or message, other than to insist everything is fine, whether on the economy, or climate change, or anything else. It could operate in a vacuum and be unaffected.

But the costs of cutting McKenzie loose, as Morrison’s stolid defence of her so far suggest, are substantial.

For a long time the Nationals, comparative bastions of leadership stability under Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce, could only look with rage at the revolving door of the Liberal leadership.

Now the destabilising presence of Barnaby Joyce on the backbench makes the Nationals the party of leadership instability, meaning literally everything must be seen through the prism of Barnaby and his possible return to the frontbench.

And by the way, losing McKenzie from ministerial ranks only to gain Joyce isn’t exactly a triumph of administrative competence and integrity given the number of scandals in Agriculture in Joyce’s time.

So now it’s the turn of the Liberals to be frustrated and enraged by how leadership tensions cause political trauma. Having the next-to-useless Michael McCormack as party leader makes things worse, given he is unable to mount any effective public defence of his deputy.

It’s also blunted one of the key features of Morrison’s political tactics — his capacity to move quickly on a problem to get where it was always going to end up without the political damage of leaving things to fester.

At the moment Morrison looks paralysed, making a fool of himself as he dismisses journalists’ factual questions as “editorial” and refusing to accept that there was anything problematic about a program that is now the very definition of a rort.

It also seems now that the government is going to have to do something to placate the sports clubs and community groups that presented highly meritorious applications for grants but which missed out on funds because they were in safe Coalition or safe Labor seats.

A class action might not succeed, but would keep the scandal in the public eye long after McKenzie has been sent to the backbench.

In effect, Morrison will have to either establish another version of the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant program to be aimed at safe seats, or expand the existing, less rorted sports infrastructure program run by the Department of Infrastructure to bribe complainants into silence.

When the program was set up ahead of the election, no one in the government cared much about the problems of how to handle the fallout if the rorting ever became known. Most assumed they would lose the election and it wouldn’t matter. Dealing with the fallout would be a nice problem to have, because it would mean they would be in government.

Well, here you are. Enjoy.