Minister for Agriculture Senator Bridget McKenzie. Picture:
Minister for Agriculture Senator Bridget McKenzie. Picture:

Bridget McKenzie resigns after sport grants scandal

EMBATTLED Minister Bridget McKenzie has fallen on her sword over the controversial $100 million sports grant program, after the scandal stretched into its third week.

A report completed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens found Senator McKenzie breached ministerial standards by failing to report a conflict of interest when granting cash to a shooting club she had just joined.

Former Minister for Agriculture Senator Bridget McKenzie.
Former Minister for Agriculture Senator Bridget McKenzie.

But Mr Gaetjens, who is Prime Minister Scott Morrison's former chief of staff, found there was no political bias in how the grants were awarded.

The ruling flies in the face of the independent Auditor-General's report, which found there was a distributional bias in favour of marginal seats held or targeted by the Coalition.

Senator McKenzie's end follows weeks of intense pressure, from inside and outside the Coalition, for her to quit or be sacked as the scandal dragged on.

Ministers who overrule statutory bodies' recommendations on grants processes, like Sports Australia, will now be required to report on why they did so, Mr Morrison said.

Despite the Auditor-General's report, and the Sports Australian boss Kate Palmer raising issues with the scheme before the Federal election, it was a $36,000 grant to the Wangaratta Clay Target Club that ended Senator McKenzie's career.

It was also revealed that Mr Gaetjens looked into two further conflicts - where Senator McKenzie gave grants to the Northern Territory and Warrnambool branches of Field and Game Australia.

Senator McKenzie was not a member of either branch, but held membership with the overarching body.

Despite accepting her resignation, Mr Morrison was full of praise for Senator McKenzie.

"I want to thank Bridget McKenzie for the outstanding job she has done in serving both in my Cabinet and my predecessor's Cabinet. I particularly want to thank Bridget for the amazing work she has done regional Australia," Mr Morrison said.

"What the secretary has been asked to do here is assess the Auditor-General's report and consider the fairness elements of that, and he has made a very clear finding which said that the Minister actually did not take into primary consideration those political factors. He has actually rejected that as a position."

Bridget McKenzie and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: AAP Image/Marc Tewksbury
Bridget McKenzie and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Picture: AAP Image/Marc Tewksbury

Mr Morrison said Senator McKenzie tender her resignation after Mr Gaetjens' report found she had breached Ministerial standards.

"Minister McKenzie has shown great respect for the statement of standards," he said.

"In relation to a conflict of interest, the secretary concluded that the timing is such that the potential conflict should have been clear."

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack will be acting Agriculture Minister until Senator McKenzie's replacement is chosen.

Two-thirds of the grants handed out in Queensland, or almost $10 million out of $15 million, went to marginal seats targeted or held by the Coalition.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said it was "about time" Senator McKenzie resigned.

"But this scandal is bigger than one minister, and we still need to get to the bottom of these tawdry sports rorts," Mr Albanese said.

"This scandal characterises everything that's wrong with this Government - one that is all about its own interests and not the national interest."

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack thanked Senator McKenzie for her work, but accepted her resignation.

"Senator McKenzie's energy and enthusiasm in any of her roles are evident to all who meet her and I know she will continue in her efforts to serve the people of Victoria and Australia," he said.

"The position of Deputy Leader of The Nationals is a matter for The Nationals party room, which is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, 4 February 2020."