Bridget McKenzie sports rort
Senator Bridget McKenzie (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Bridget McKenzie — and the whole sports rort affair — has become a symbol of all that’s wrong with our system of government. This week, Inq’s David Hardaker examines the five “exhibits” in the case against McKenzie. Today, exhibit A...

From the time she entered parliament Senator Bridget McKenzie was an accident waiting to happen. But behind the senator’s fall from grace is the story of a system’s failure.

There were warnings the senator was on a collision course with the very concept of government from her first words to the Senate in 2011. Describing herself as a conservative (and constitutional monarchist) the newly-elected parliamentary representative declared she was “suspicious of government and its role in our lives”.

“It may be unfashionable, and I acknowledge the inherent contradiction,” she said in a nod to the oddity of doubting the very institution she had been elected to help run.

Exhibit A: conflict of interest? What’s that?

It took almost a decade but McKenzie finally came to grief for failing to declare a conflict of interest. McKenzie awarded a $36,000 grant under the Community Sports Infrastructure program to a shooting club which had given her a membership. McKenzie had also failed to declare she was a member of Field and Game Australia, a recreational shooting and hunting organisation, though she had awarded a $500,000 grant to its Northern Territory branch. 

It might be basic common sense to declare that you are part of an organisation that will benefit from your decision as an elected official entrusted with taxpayers’ money. Yet as Inq has discovered, McKenzie has struggled with the concept for much of her time as a senator.

Her failure is all the more serious because, as Inq’s investigation shows, for almost two years, McKenzie was part of a parliamentary body — the Senate standing committee of Senators’ Interests — responsible for ensuring that senators are aware of conflict of interest rules and declare any conflicts, with regular updates if needed, on the register of senators’ interests.

The register is available to the media and the public online.

McKenzie’s statement of interests lodged with the Senate registrar between 2011 and 2019 reveal the senator herself has a poor record of complying with the rules. She has declared gifts received in her official capacity — yet for years she failed to declare the source of those gifts, which is required by the Senate’s rules. Declaring the source of largesse is the key to understanding conflict of interest.

In November 2015 McKenzie recorded receiving:

  • tickets to AFL Geeling vs Hawthorn
  • return flights to Tasmania for recreation purposes
  • accommodation Tasmania for recreation purposes
  • Emirates Melbourne Cup tickets
  • International Horse Show tickets

In September 2016 McKenzie reported receiving hospitality from undeclared sources for:

  • outdoor activities, accommodation and meals, New Zealand
  • opening ski season, Hotham, flights & accommodation 

In both cases the hospitality had been given a year earlier, in 2015.

If McKenzie was indebted to or doing the bidding of anyone connected to these gifts it was impossible for the public to know.

Meanwhile the gifts continued to pour in over 2017 and 2018, including: four dozen bottles of wine, complimentary flights, Derby Day tickets and corporate hospitality, a boxed bottle of wine with accessories — the list continued but still with no clue as to who saw value in giving things to the senator.

McKenzie only corrected the record — and even then only partially — on November 23, 2018. We learn, belatedly, that gifts were given by a range of corporations and associations with a barrow to push. They include Emirates Airlines, Tabcorp, the Brewers Association, Credit Union Australia and agriculture biotech industry organisation, Croplife. 

The timing of McKenzie’s belated disclosures coincides with a ramping up of approvals under the sports grants program. It was then she finally declared the identities of a host of sporting organisations that had handed over gifts large and small, stretching back to 2016.

It emerged that professional sport organisations Tennis Australia, the Football Federation of Australia and the Australian Rugby League Commission had plied the senator with free tickets to major set piece events such as the Australian Open tennis tournament and rugby league State of Origin.

McKenzie, though, conspicuously failed to declare who paid for her Tasmanian “flights and recreation” in 2015. Or her trip to New Zealand the same year. Or who had given her an expensive bottle of Tasmanian Scotch in 2014. Might it be an organisation that subsequently received a regional development grant? Or a sports grant? Who would know?

It is only now, five years on, and at the specific request of Inq, that McKenzie has revealed the source of those gifts.

The recreational trips to Tasmania and New Zealand had been “sponsored”, to use McKenzie’s term, by the Australian branch of the international firearms manufacturer, Beretta. which sells rifles and shotguns in the local market. 

A gift of “sports and recreational clothing” was given to the senator by H&S Firearms, a gun dealership with an outlet in Sale, Victoria.  

The Tasmanian scotch, the senator says, was gifted by high-end Victorian wine and spirit merchants, Taylor Ferguson & Co.

Inq has asked McKenzie to clarify if the Beretta-sponsored “recreational” trip to New Zealand was for pig shooting. 

McKenzie’s undeclared gifts overlap with her time as a minister in charge of four different portfolios, covering sport, regional communications, rural health and regional services.

She also sat as a member of the Cabinet for close to two years without publicly declaring the sources of her gifts. It’s not known what issues the Cabinet considered at that time, but McKenzie’s various gift-givers have interests in gambling, airlines policy, alcohol taxes and gun ownership rules, to name a few.  

McKenzie has also consistently failed to update and amend her interests declaration within the 35-day period set out in the Senate’s rules. In several cases her declaration came more than 12 months later, destroying any chance of real time transparency.   

The interests register operates as an honour system, with senators self-reporting on gifts over a particular limit. It is not subject to monitoring from an independent party. According to a Senate handbook, senators are reminded every six months of their duty to keep their declarations up to date and of the need to name the source of gifts. They are also given guidance on how to interpret conflict of interest.

The handbook informs senators that any breach of the rules is a “serious contempt of the Senate” and to be dealt with “accordingly” by the Senate, after going through the Senate Privileges Committee. 

None of this should have been news to McKenzie. She was a member of the bipartisan Senate committee on interests, charged with keeping senators aware of how to comply with the rules, from September 2016 to February 2018. Over this period McKenzie disregarded the rules continually and with impunity. 

In a Kafka-esque touch, McKenzie was also a member of the Privileges Committee, which rules on cases of potential contempt of the Senate, while at the same time sitting on the committee overseeing the Senate interests register. 

So what does the Senator say?

In an emailed response, McKenzie refused to concede she had breached the rules:

“I declared to the Senate the trips [Inq] is inquiring about,” she wrote.

Asked why she failed to declare the source of gifts and hospitality, McKenzie said that it was “not unusual” for senators to adopt “different declaration methods.” 

The senator declined to explain why she suddenly corrected the record in late 2018 to declare the source of some — but not all — previously undeclared gifts.

In February this year, in the days after she was forced to resign from the ministry, McKenzie made a brief speech to the Senate to apologize and to come clean on the various memberships she held but had not declared over the years.

The list included:

  • Field and Game Australia
  • Sporting Shooters Association of Australia
  • Australian Deer Association (the public voice for ‘ethical and responsible’ hunters) 
  • Country Women’s Association
  • Victorian Farmers Federation

In the same breath, however, McKenzie maintained that none of her memberships had “contributed any real or apparent conflict of interest” to her role as a minister or a senator, despite it being the reason she was forced to resign.

While using the occasion to apologise for “her transgression with regard to the register of interests”, McKenzie still kept important information to herself. No one was told about Beretta Australia which paid for her trips and last year formed a partnership with shooters group, Field and Game Australia.