Michael Pascoe: Scott Morrison’s sports rorts defence leaves his credibility in tatters

Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday. Photo: AAP

For all but the most rusted on, Scott Morrison destroyed his credibility at the National Press Club on Wednesday – and even some of the rusted on would have to wince.

The Prime Minister may as well have opened his performance with: “How good are sports rorts? How good are political slush funds? How irrelevant are journalists asking questions?”

What he actually said was more astounding.

Scott Morrison told Australia there was absolutely nothing wrong with corrupting community sports grants for partisan political purposes, nothing wrong with misleading hundreds of community sporting clubs, nothing wrong with wasting the time of thousands of volunteers applying for funds that would not be granted on merit.

With the possible exception – and it’s only possible – of a minor quibble about the timing of Bridget McKenzie’s membership of a gun club, the Prime Minister of Australia could see nothing wrong with the $100 million scandal laid bare by the Auditor-General even when the government’s colour-coded charts for attempted vote buying have been published.

(And I wouldn’t bet on the little inquiry into Senator McKenzie’s gun club membership finding any sackable offence, especially when the National Party’s internal politics demands otherwise.)

Mr Morrison’s unflinching defence of #sportsrorts means the inquiry by erstwhile Liberal political staffer and current head of the PM’s own department, Philip Gaetjens, is limited to the Wangaratta Clay Target Club matter.

If you can ignore a massive $100 million rort, the timing of one $36,000 grant decision shouldn’t be a problem.

Along the way at the NPC, Mr Morrison added another phrase to his collection of shields used to deflect and ignore uncomfortable questions.

In the grand tradition of “on-water matters”, “Canberra bubble,” “gossip”, “family matters”, “I’ve dealt with that” and “I reject the premise of your question”, we now have “your editorial”.

When the ABC’s Andrew Probyn brandished the smoking gun of Senator McKenzie’s political charts and asked if there would be no further such slush funds, Mr Morrison replied: “Well Andrew, I’ll put your editorial to one side and your commentary on it, that’s your view…” and proceeded to ignore the question.

When The Guardian’s Sarah Martin asked if there was nothing wrong as a matter of principle in using public funds for political interests and entrenching the government’s power, she received the double of a “I just reject the premise of your question” and a “you can have an editorial on it”.

The ABC’s Laura Tingle tried, wondering what was the point of having guidelines if they were not followed.

She will still be wondering as the Prime Minister didn’t answer the question.

Ms Tingle also went closer to one of the two core issues – who knew what and when at the very top of the government – by asking how Cabinet on March 3 thought an extra $42.5 million could be properly spent as time ran out before the approaching election.

Yep, we’re again left wondering.

Channel 7’s Mark Riley had a crack at the other core question – the involvement of the Prime Minister’s office.

“Can you say categorically your office had nothing to do with this, no involvement in the construction of this rort?”

After that wasn’t answered over several minutes that even included the #Scottyfrommarketing line about girls getting changed in cars and at the back of the shed, Riley had another go without a microphone about the involvement of the Prime Minister’s office.

“All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us,” said Mr Morrison.

Given the Prime Minister’s mastery of weasel words and the lack of credibility arising from claiming black was white, what information and representations from which colleagues must also remain a matter of wonderment.

With Mr Morrison true to form in blocking straight questions, The Conversation’s Michelle Grattan tried something more cunning.

The press gallery doyen asked if the Prime Minister thought bureaucrats were less in touch with community needs and priorities when it came to such things as sports grants. Therefore, did he believe that the bureaucrats who made the initial rankings were wrong in those rankings and the minister was likely to have a better view of the needs.

You have to understand how frustrating it is questioning someone who refuses to honestly engage in the process to understand the smarts involved in that question, a flipper around the wicket.

It had Mr Morrison padding furiously before coming to a non-answer about it being nice if bureaucrats and politicians worked together.

So, five strong questions on #sportsrorts in the available time from five experienced journalists – and they all came to nought, gaining no admission, no honesty, no enlightenment.

Well, no enlightenment from what Mr Morrison said, but from his willingness to burn credibility, to so strongly defend the indefensible corruption of community grants, there must be a lot more at stake than Senator Bridget McKenzie’s ministerial salary.

And the political cost to the government continues to grow as the stench of this rort brings other smelly doings to the surface.

For example, rort one grants scheme, rort ‘em all – now there’s the story of almost half the councils the government announced would be eligible for a $1 million drought grant during the election did not meet the funding criteria.

The New Daily‘s Samantha Maiden reveals Senator McKenzie, already known for expensive travel habits, slugged taxpayers more than $40,000 for a VIP flight from Adelaide to Western Australia for a Nationals conference and shooters’ expo – a jolly that necessitated the RAAF jet flying empty from Canberra to Adelaide and from Perth back to Canberra.

The National Party’s new federal director, Jonathan Hawkes, has been exposed as having his DNA on Senator McKenzie’s colour-coded rorting when he was working as her media adviser.

Does that mean grants corruption is the official standard of the National Party now?

Perhaps the “now” is superfluous.

A stink all of his own belongs to the current Sport Minister, Richard Colbeck, who apparently is more concerned about details of the corruption being leaked than the corruption.

Oh, if people didn’t tell the truth, there wouldn’t be a problem.

And then there’s the steady drip, drip of more deserving clubs that didn’t get grants, the farce of the ridiculously well-endowed scoring big if they were in the right seats, the grants for projects that were already under way, the grant for a women’s changing room for a rugby club without a women’s team.

Yet to come is the inevitable Senate inquiry to comb over all the rotting detail.

All this, Scott Morrison would have us believe, so girls could change behind new solar panels at an elite golf club, or something like that.

Yes, there must be a lot at stake for the Prime Minister to continue to claim that black is white and not try to cauterise the wound using the proverbial political bus.

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