Gaetjens signals McKenzie’s departure, but not an end to meddling ministers

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday February 3, 2020

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Scott Morrison’s top mandarin has handed over his report on the sports rorts scandal, prompting the resignation of agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie.

Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens found McKenzie had breached ministerial standards by failing to disclose that she was a member of a gun club that received funding in a controversial sports grants scheme, Morrison told reporters on Sunday.

However, Gaetjens “did not find evidence” that grant allocations had been influenced by marginal or targeted electorates, and found “no basis for the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor”, Morrison said.

The secretary supported one of the recommendations outlined in the national auditor-general’s report, which called for the Commonwealth grants rules and guidelines to be amended so that decision making reporting requirements — where a minister approves grant funding — be extended to apply to corporate Commonwealth entities such as Sport Australia.

Read more: The Sport Australia board should resign in protest

While McKenzie accepted Gaetjen’s report, she used her resignation statement to assert her right to reject the advice of bureaucrats.

“Elected representatives are responsible for public expenditure and take advice, not direction, from the public service and others. The operation of ministerial discretion is important to our democratic process,” she said.

The comments from the outgoing minister have added to the narrative that ministers know better than public servants — a message that the prime minister has been sending since he was elected.

When asked on Sunday whether allowing ministers to make decisions rather than impartial public servants was a problem, Morrison argued that many charitable groups “had their funding cut by actually quite, quite difficult decisions that were made by departments that were unaware of many of the issues and the impacts this would have on the ground”.

He also recently argued that politicians were more “in touch” with the community than bureaucrats.

Similarly, National Party leader Michael McCormack recently said “if we only ever do what bureaucrats tell us, we don’t meed ministers”, while Attorney-General Christian Porter noted that it was the job of ministers to be involved in the final approval of projects.

Morrison thanked McKenzie “for the outstanding job she has done in serving, both in my Cabinet and my predecessor’s Cabinet”.

He said Gaetjens’ report would not be released to the public.

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