If anyone has forgotten, Bridget McKenzie is a rorter. When sports minister, she and her office used taxpayer funds in pursuit of the Coalition’s marginal seat strategy in the 2019 election, dictated by Scott Morrison’s office. She did so without legal authority to allocate the money. The whole program she rorted was designed to be rorted, which is why it was run out of the Sports Commission, which wasn’t subject to the normal anti-rorting rules.
Worse, McKenzie was an incompetent rorter. She got found out by the Auditor-General, who forensically revealed her rorting. And she lost her job over the rorting, because she failed to declare a conflict of interest.
In a government that is the most corrupt we’ve ever seen in federal politics, which regards pork-barrelling and rorting as standard political practice, and which is led by a man with a frequent and irresistible compulsion to lie, imagine being so bad you actually lose your job. That’s Bridget McKenzie.
Darren Chester is also a member of the Nationals, and like McKenzie hails from Victoria. Since being restored to the frontbench after Barnaby Joyce resigned in disgrace over sexual harassment allegations in 2018, Chester has been minister for veterans’ affairs. In March, he racked up three years in the portfolio. It’s been a tough gig, made unnecessarily tougher by the bloodyminded refusal of Scott Morrison and Christian Porter, then Attorney-General, to hold a royal commission into veterans’ suicides until Morrison caved in this year.
Chester was left to lead the government’s inadequate response to a horrific and growing toll of deaths among our former and current servicemen and women — a toll we’re not even sure of the full magnitude of, giving assessments of numbers vary from between less than 500 to more than 700 since 2003.
The delivery performance of DVA for veterans has also been hampered by long-running problems with its IT systems and their crucial integration with those of Services Australia. Chester secured $120 million in this year’s budget to overhaul the systems and their interaction with other line agencies.
It says a lot that, despite having a target painted on his back for so long by Morrison over the royal commission issue, some veterans’ families want Chester to remain in the role. Chester also yesterday scotched suggestions he might defect to the Liberals given Joyce has returned to the leadership, saying “I’m absolutely committed to run as the pre-selected National Party candidate in the seat of Gippsland at the next federal election.”
The Nationals have a profound dearth of frontbench talent — one that contributes to the overall shallowness and incompetence of the Morrison government, especially since Mathias Cormann left. Chester is one of the few competent ministers in the government, and not too many are likely to ever have stakeholders pleading that they be left in their portfolios. Once again sending Chester to the backbench wouldn’t merely be an act of truly petty vindictiveness by Joyce — whose own failures as minister for agriculture have been repeatedly shown up since he was forced onto the backbench in 2018 in areas like water and animal welfare — but would inflict disproportionate damage to the government’s ministerial talent base.
Promoting McKenzie in his place would redouble the damage, and signal that the most egregious abuse of power and rorting of taxpayer funds was perfectly acceptable. If the return of Barnaby Joyce to the deputy prime ministership is a moment when Australian politics scraped the bottom of the barrel, McKenzie is through the bottom and into the dirt beneath.
Then again, veterans in marginal seats might find themselves lavished with funding ahead of the next election.