In 1996, I was interim chief of staff to new health minister, Michael Wooldridge. I occupied a small room next to the minister’s. An unprepossessing room it was, more a broom closet, but at one time it housed a certain whiteboard.
A “great big whiteboard”, in fact.
For Wooldridge’s office once belonged to Keating government minister Ros Kelly. The great big whiteboard that once was in my room was the very one on which Kelly and her office had supposedly worked out how to distribute funding to community sporting groups predominantly in Labor marginal seats under the Community Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities programme before the 1993 federal election that Labor expected to lose.
On that whiteboard, Kelly’s staff took the recommendations of their department and workshopped their own version, making sure Labor MPs got the benefit of having a Labor minister looking after their constituency interests. In December 1993, however, the Australian National Audit Office criticised the programme’s administration and blasted the total lack of records for Kelly’s decision-making. The opposition, led by (then) Liberal John Hewson, saw the opportunity, pursued Keating and Kelly relentlessly, and forced a parliamentary inquiry where Kelly stupidly admitted the role of the erasable whiteboard.
Even a committee stacked with Labor MPs couldn’t save her after that, and she resigned her ministry in early 1994 and quit her safe Labor seat of Canberra in early 1995, only to lose it in a landslide swing to the Liberals: something that never happens in the People’s Republic of the ACT.
The whole affair went down in political history in the catchy title coined for it by then shadow finance minister Peter Costello’s press sec and now Speaker, Tony Smith: Sports Rorts.
New Treasurer Costello was a very early (and unexpected) visitor to my little room in 1996. Sweeping into Wooldridge’s office, with Smith in tow, he wanted just one thing. “I want to see the whiteboard!”, he exclaimed.
Alas, when Kelly quit, her whiteboard had gone back to her department. No matter. The wall on which it has stood had a nice, little whiteboard, and was symbolically good enough to satisfy Costello.
For Costello, ably assisted by Smith, led the Coalition’s successful onslaught against Kelly, her administrative negligence and the blatant bias in her decision-making. It was he above all others who had got Kelly’s scalp, and made the Keating government look very shabby indeed just as John Howard returned to the Liberal leadership in early 1995 and revived the Coalition. “Bigger than Bass”, the headlines blared the day after the Canberra by-election, referencing the June 1975 swing against Labor in the northern Tasmanian electorate that foreshadowed the Whitlam government’s annihilation in December of that year.
Fast-forward until now and we have another sporting facilities grant programme and another sports minister largely overriding, in this case, the Australian Sports Commission’s recommendations and working out her own distribution, apparently doing her best to ensure that government marginal and target seats were well looked after in the run-up to a difficult election.
Except this time it was a Coalition minister, looking after Coalition seats. Her name is Bridget McKenzie. The only real difference is that technology’s marched on, and this time it was a spreadsheet and not a whiteboard.
I somehow doubt that Costello will sweep triumphantly into McKenzie’s office as he did Ros Kelly’s former one, but the principles on which he deservedly pursued Kelly apply equally today.
Based on the ANAO report, there are serious questions about what her office did, and how they treated the “draft” recommendations received from her department. If she cannot satisfactorily answer them then she should, as the saying goes, consider her position.
This “Sports Rorts II” should infuriate government supporters for several reasons. First, these types of grants are favoured by governments of both sides of politics because they give “announceables” to local MPs. Beneficiaries smile, take the cheque and say the right things. But do they change or buy a single vote? Not on your life. Does administrative rigour outweigh political advantage? Certainly not.
Second, the stupidity of following almost the same modus operandi as Ros Kelly did a quarter of a century ago. Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, and here’s a classic case. Did McKenzie or anyone in their office remember Sports Rorts and how the Coalition pursued Kelly on a matter of principle and a failure of good governance? It’s reasonable to assume that McKenzie hasn’t been a hypocrite, because it is certainly reasonable to assume she’s ignorant of political history that she’s old enough to remember. She was a 20-something at the time, and has no excuse not to be aware of Sports Rorts.
Third, the Coalition expected to lose the 2019 election, just like Labor back in 1993 — no matter what Keating insisted afterwards. Had Bill Shorten and a cocky Labor not been so obliging, McKenzie and the Coalition would have been back in the wilderness of opposition. But this audit would still have been undertaken. Its findings would be the same. But these would have been flung gleefully in Coalition faces by a triumphant Shorten government who would not have forgotten Ros Kelly and Sports Rorts. It would have used the ANAO report to beat a Josh Frydenberg–led opposition to a pulp. So, assuming she wasn’t put up to it, what the devil was McKenzie thinking in allowing this to happen? She probably congratulated herself then, and thinks she has nothing to answer for now.
It’s likely Bridget McKenzie will survive this fiasco. Governments have the resources of government to defend their own and the Nationals determine their own ministerial representation (not that she’s the most popular of colleagues, but the Nats protect even the most undeserving of their own, especially from those pesky Liberals). It’s hard to see Scott Morrison risking Coalition harmony to sack her given she’s also the Nats’ deputy leader and – ahem – a rootin’ tootin’ shotgun-totin’ woman. But thanks to the ANAO report, her too-clever-by-half stupidity has come back to bite the Morrison government at precisely the wrong time, making the most difficult month the Coalition’s had since returning to power in 2013 even more painful and fraught than it’s needed to be.
If it is to keep its narrow advantage over a weakened and demoralised Labor to secure a fourth term – something of which the crises of the past month are a potent reminder the political winds can change overnight and nothing can be taken for granted – incompetence such as McKenzie’s simply can’t be afforded. She may be able to tough it out now but Bridget McKenzie, a VIP position in the political Hall of Shame awaits you.
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