An attempt to suspend Senate leader Mathias Cormann and obtain Phil Gaetjens’ report into Bridget McKenzie’s handling of Commonwealth grants has failed.
The motion supported by Labor, the Greens and the crossbench lost 36-35 after Pauline Hanson withdrew her support and Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff abstained.
The motion would have stopped Cormann from answering questions in the Senate on behalf of the prime minister and from representing him at estimates. It would have also barred him from sitting at the centre table in the chamber for three weeks — unless the government tabled Gaetjens’ report.
Gaetjens, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was tasked with leading the probe into the government grants program last month, following a report from the national auditor-general which found “evidence of distribution bias”. The auditor-general found then-sports minister McKenzie and her office had awarded grants to marginal and targeted coalition electorates, rather than the electorates recommended by the Australian Sports Commission.
According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Gaetjens’ report concluded that while McKenzie had breached ministerial standards, there was “no basis for the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor”.
Cormann described the push against him as “completely unprecedented”, to which Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong agreed. However, she argued the “unprecedented behaviour of this government” meant the sanctions were necessary.
“This is all about protection of the prime minister, who is up to his neck in the sports rorts scandal,” she said.
“We’re being asked to accept that the findings of an independent statutory officer, the Auditor-General, should be overridden by a secret report authored by someone of dubious credibility – because Mr Gaetjens is Mr Morrison’s mate, his former chief of staff, and that inquiry was commissioned by Mr Morrison to get exactly the advice he wanted so that he could do what he had already decided.”
Cormann reaffirmed that the report would not be released as it was a Cabinet document and not in the public interest.
Griff, who split from fellow Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick on the motion, said he supported the Senate obtaining at least a summary of the Gaetjens report, but thought “sending a minister off to effectively a naughty chair and stopping him doing his job is plainly a personal attack”.
A Senate committee into the sports rorts will begin on Thursday with evidence from the national auditor-general Grant Hehir. Gaetjens will also be called.