MUNGO MACCALLUM. Bridget McKenzie and the subversion of public funds.

Feb 3, 2020

The Auditor-General’s report left no room for alibis and wriggle room.

So Bridget McKenzie’s well-manicured fingernails have finally been pried from office – but frankly, who cares? Too little, too late.

She was less a dead woman walking than an increasingly noisome corpse waiting for burial, or cremation, or preferably both – dead, buried and cremated as Tony Abbott once said of his own hopes of political resuscitation.

And Abbott should know: it was his stubborn and futile defence of his old (now very much former) colleague Bronwyn Bishop as she became involved in the choppergate scandal of 2015.

In comparison, Bishop’s offence was relatively minor: greed and arrogance, a belief in her entitlement to bend the rules for personal convenience. McKenzie’s malfeasance was far more egregious and deserves to be called actually corrupt – the subversion of public funds to secure party political advantage.

And it was an open and shut case, with a smoking gun still clutched in her own bloody red hands. The Auditor-General’s report left no room for alibis and wriggle room. Delivered by a senior independent body within her own government, the verdict could only be one of capital punishment,

And yet, like Abbott before him, Scott Morrison thought he could spin his way out of trouble with nearly three agonizing weeks of increasingly incredible justifications, distractions, and downright absurdities – the one about saving the girls from having to change behind the shed, when the girls’ team had already been dissolved, was the most parodic.

In the end, Morrison and McKenzie. like Abbott, had to fall back on the old and totally discredited line: she didn’t actually break any rules. To which every punter in every pub will reasonably reply that if she didn’t – and this is still dubious — then the rules are a farce and a scam themselves.

The public, and not just who have been dudded over their hard fought grants approved by the Sports Commission – and there are plenty of those – know damn well that if they are caught by the smallest discrepancy from the government, whether for the Tax Office or Centrelink, they will be smashed, humiliated, stripped of their supposedly immoral earnings and subjected to stringent penalties.

McKenzie, who was caught misappropriating more than $100 million, was not only exonerated but applauded for delivering a program praised, unsurprisingly, by the lucky winners in the marginal seats. Her situation was, as everyone, including Morrison, realized, untenable.

So he appointed a hand-picked bureaucratic crony to do the execution he lacked the guts to perform himself. And unsurprisingly, Phil Gaetjens came up with an anodyne finding that allowed McKenzie to resign while absolving the government of any guilt over the main issue. The auditor-general was effectively thrown under a bus. Morrison saved face, but lost any semblance of integrity and credibility in the process.

So why did he expend so much of his diminishing stock of political capital in thrashing around inside the killing bottle? Presumably because sacking her was too hard. Not just because she is a Nat, and her embattled party leader Michael McCormack, was desperate not to lose her support, but perhaps also because she knew how much his own office had been conniving and co-operating in the rort.

The chance of a quick, clean, kill to cut short the infection quickly past; and constant leaking of new atrocities, many rumoured to be coming from within her own ranks, possibly involving the still ambitious Barnaby Joyce, would not abate until she was finally put down.

But. as with Abbott and Bishop, it was too little and too late. The damage has already been done. The only question is how long and how far it spreads.

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