Anatomy of a snow job: Scott Morrison whitewashes corruption

Michael Pascoe dissects the Prime Minister's wishy washy marketing spin.

Michael Pascoe dissects the Prime Minister's wishy washy marketing spin. Photo: TND

Let’s be very clear about this. The rorting of the $100 million community sports grants program was flagrant corruption and Prime Minister Morrison and senior ministers were in on it up to their ethically-devoid eyeballs.

That’s why Mr Morrison can’t throw former Sport Minister Bridget McKenzie under the bus. If Senator McKenzie is judged to be unfit for her job, the same goes for the Prime Minister.

There would have to be a new front bench. That isn’t happening.

Mr Morrison’s involvement was made obvious in what he didn’t say in five interviews on Monday morning and in his office’s answers to questions reported by The Guardian.

As to whether disregarding due process and flagrantly using taxpayers’ funds to attempt to swing votes in marginal seats is corrupt, former NSW Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy finds “the misuse of power and money for political gain is an example of corruption”.

But he warns such corruption would not fall within the federal government’s definition under its proposed integrity commission.

“There’s a good reason for that – they don’t want this sort of thing investigated,” he told the Australian Financial Review.

So how does “Scotty from Marketing” whitewash corruption? He does the snow job he pulled off on Monday morning in five radio and TV interviews.

But it’s what he doesn’t say, the careful precision of his evasions, that still condemns him – if you listen carefully.

I’ve taken one for the team, dear reader, and read all five transcripts and more so you don’t have to listen to them. They range from the cringe-inducing sycophancy of Ray “even if climate change is real“ Hadley on 2GB to honest journalistic attempts by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and the ABC’s Sabra Lane with a couple of inconsequential efforts by commercial breakfast TV in between.

While later in the morning, it was the chummy chat with Hadley that summarised the government’s carefully crafted script.

MORRISON: “I mean, it’s, these things are hard to judge between, to be honest, Ray. I mean, this isn’t about the projects that were funded. These are projects on the ground for community sports infrastructure…

“We had local sports clubs raising money for a decade and these grants came in and made these projects a reality on the ground…

… now people are going to argue the toss about this one versus that one.
– Scott Morrison on 2GB radio

“You know, but money’s finite and it can only go to so many projects. But every single one of those projects, I haven’t heard anyone raise any project and say, well, that’s not a worthy project or that wouldn’t have made a big difference on the ground. I think they all have.”

HADLEY: Okay. I appreciate your time. We’ll talk again soon. Thanks very much.

Channel 7’s Sunrise did at least begin its interview with the Prime Minister on the hot topic, but there were only four questions and only one of them close to the mark:

SAM ARMYTAGE: Did they specifically go to marginal seats? Do you have that? I mean, you admit questions are being raised here and you acknowledged that that could be, there could be a concern. Were they targeted to marginal seats?

PRIME MINISTER: They went to seats right across the country….

And on Mr Morrison ranted according to his pre-scripted deflective talking points, avoiding the question.

Scott Morrison visits a school with then-Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie. Photo: AAP

There was no attempt to hold him to that question before, God spare me, David Koch moved on to the old culture war of Australia Day on January 26.

(Why not just roll in Pauline Hanson, Mark Latham and Prue MacSween there and then to do some black bashing?)

Channel 9’s Today show was worse.

The tone was set by hosts Allison Langdon and Karl Stefanovic allowing Mr Morrison to go unquestioned with the amazing claim that “we will reduce our carbon emissions per capita by half between now and 2030”.

It wasn’t a one-off slip. He said it twice.

“Our per capita emissions will fall by half over the next 10 years.”

That’s an extraordinary claim that will come as quite a shock to the Department of Environment, never mind Craig Kelly and rest of the coalition’s troglodyte wing and the various climate-denying Australian columnists, or Bill Shorten whose 2030 target was less-ambitious.

(It seems Allison and Karl either weren’t listening, aren’t very good with maths or simply don’t have a clue about the emissions issue. For their benefit, the government’s own figures show our real emissions reductions between now and 2030 are rather small. Emissions reductions from the considerably higher starting point of 2005 are on track for only 15 per cent – annual population growth of 1.5 per cent will fall a long way short of turning that into 50 per cent per capita.)

With the clock running down on Today’s don’t-strain-the-ADD-viewer timing, the most blatant example of political corruption since the last one and one that goes right to the top received this:

LANGDON: Just quickly before you go, one more question. Minister Bridget McKenzie, her handling of the $100 million sports fund. I mean, it’s a clear example of political corruption. She won’t step down. Do you need to show leadership here and get rid of her? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don’t accept the characterisation of it…

And then it was uninterrupted Morrison-speak until:

STEFANOVIC: Prime Minister, there is a lot on your plate right now and we appreciate you coming on our show and we hope to see you again soon and, look, there’s a lot of work to do out there and we’ll let you get back to it. Appreciate it. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Karl, thanks Ally.

Meanwhile, the two real interviewers on Monday morning did try, but both missed a vital question that would have been much more interesting.

Sabra Lane on ABC radio’s AM scored subsequent headlines by provoking the “Matt Kean doesn’t know what he’s talking about” outburst.

On the BBQ-stopper of community sports volunteers being gamed by Liberal politicians, Lane had a smart angle of attack:

LANE: Do you endorse Bridget McKenzie’s approach in deciding how public money will be allocated in her administration of the sport’s grant scheme? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the auditor general’s report, I thought, was very serious, and we are acting on its recommendations and moving quickly to do that. And on top of that, there are some legal issues that were raised by the auditor general, which I’m moving quickly with the Attorney-General to ensure that they’re clarified as soon as possible. The Auditor-General found-

LANE: I’m sorry, that wasn’t my question, it was do you endorse her approach?

PRIME MINISTER: I was getting to it…

And off Scotty from Marketing went again, yada yada yada, carefully not answering again.

Lane tried another angle, much closer to what really counts now:

LANE: Did either you or your office have any involvement in allocating the money to marginal seats? 

PRIME MINISTER: The decisions were done in accordance with the process the Minister set out, and that was that the Minister made those decisions and they were actioned in an endorsing way by Sports Australia. That’s how it worked. 

And that’s where it ended – the Prime Minister again extremely careful not to really answer the question.

Over on 3AW, Neil Mitchell had a good crack:

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, on something else, the sports grant debate. The Auditor has found, well, massive pork barrelling, but blatant pork barrelling. Did you sign off on it?

PRIME MINISTER: The Cabinet signed off, obviously, on the program and which is a $100 million to go to community sports and regional grants.

MITCHELL: What about the individual grants?

PRIME MINISTER: That was done by the Minister.

MITCHELL: So nobody else was consulted?

PRIME MINISTER: The Minister and Sports Australia. Because Sports Australia write the cheque and ultimately authorise all the payments that go out in accordance with the rules, which is what the Auditor-General found was followed. The Auditor-General found that there were no ineligible projects, which was different to what happened with Ros Kelly and Catherine King. They had money going to projects that simply were ineligible.

MITCHELL: Was Liberal Party head office consulted, or any campaign strategist consulted?

PRIME MINISTER: The Minister made the decisions and got all the representation from everybody. I mean, that’s the thing about grants.

MITCHELL: But it looks political. It looks political. Was there any advice taken from campaign strategists or Liberal Party head office?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, not that I can speak of. What I’m saying is that the grant programs, you know, people in communities want grants for their local sports projects and they lobby for them and they do that through their local members. They do it in direct petitions to the Prime Minister.

MITCHELL: So you stand by her unequivocally.

PRIME MINISTER: I continue to support her. And the reason I do is because she was delivering a program that has changed the futures of local communities. I mean, what we’re talking about here…

MITCHELL: Nobody argues that, it’s whether it’s done on a political basis and that the Auditor seems to be saying it is.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s hard to say, to draw that absolute conclusion when the Minister intervened to make sure more Labor seats got funding.

MITCHELL: Were they winnable seats?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t have lists but one of them was Anthony Albanese’s seat. I think he was pretty confident of holding his seat of Grayndler. 

MITCHELL: So she’ll hold on to a job, no question?

PRIME MINISTER: I continue to support her. 

MITCHELL: What does that mean? Long term? 

PRIME MINISTER: I continue to support her, Neil. It’s a pretty direct answer to a pretty direct question. 

Every time, the nub of the question avoided. Every time, a sly sidestep, a deflection about process using words without much meaning and careful not to have much meaning.

There’s no honest answer because the honest answer would be damning.

It’s rare to see such sustained evasion – evasion that would take a skilled barrister and time upon the stand to break down and demolish, not the hurried minutes of a live interview with other issues on the agenda.

Scott Morrison wasn’t the only government interviewee on Monday morn.

michaelia cash

Senator Michaelia Cash. Photo: AAP

Paul Kennedy took the ball up to Senator Michaelia Cash on ABC News Breakfast, bluntly calling out her non-answers, but in the end, the interview yielded no concessions, no information, nothing that anyone didn’t already know about Senators Cash and McKenzie.

And Leon Byner on FIVEaa interviewed the Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

The Treasurer is a member of the Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee that not only approved the Bridget McKenzie’s program but generously increased it to $100 million as the election drew near.

In Mr Frydenberg economically well-endowed seat of Kooyong, the Guardian reported grants were given to Camberwell Hockey Club ($38,000) ,East Camberwell Tennis Club ($90,000), Kew Little Athletics ($92,450), Grace Park Hawthorn Club ($25,000) and Hawthorn Malvern Hockey Centre ($500,000) in the rorted second and third rounds as the election approached and it seemed the Liberal Deputy Leader might have been in a spot of bother.

When did the Treasurer become aware taxpayers’ money was being used to target marginal seats?

Don’t know. Leon Byner didn’t ask anything about the adventures of Bridget McKenzie. Zilch.

Timing is the tell-tale question for the Prime Minister and all government ministers: when did they become aware of the rort, that millions were being targeted at marginal seats to the exclusion of more deserving organisations?

When they blandly reject the targeting – as Morrison did – bullshit has to be called. The seats were targeted. The Auditor General proved so.

So it’s the timing:

When did you know, Prime Minister?

When did you know, Treasurer?

If it was before the election – and it was – you are as guilty as Bridget McKenzie and as unfit for office.

And that’s why they will never answer the question, why this government will not allow a genuine federal integrity commission, why interviewers will continue to be treated with weasel words.

Having done the snow job, Scott Morrison will remain true to form and move on to “I’ve dealt with that, I’ve answered those questions”.

That will be fine with Ray Hadley, the Today show and Sunrise – they’ve already moved on.

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