There have been some breathtakingly audacious defences for the indefensible sports rorts affair but the prime minister really took the cake at the National Press Club with his suggestion that because members of parliament “live and breathe” in their communities they have a better sense of what is needed than public servants.
This is rot and misdirection of the highest order.
The public servants that the prime minister seeks to belittle work with sporting organisations across the country every day from grassroots clubs to elite sporting organisations. They work together with the broader sports industry and have expertise that has been built up over decades.
Members of parliament should have an interest in and affection for the sporting clubs in their electorates but as the former director of the AIS Robert de Castella noted we do not have the expertise of these public servants nor the visibility of competing areas of need across other electorates.
And clearly we do not bring the same level of impartiality to such considerations even where our advocacy is well intentioned and based on strong local knowledge.
Indeed, if MPs were such extraordinary fonts of knowledge in relation to their communities one would presume the debacle surrounding Old Collegians in Adelaide would not have occurred.
This is a convenient position to hold as it allows the prime minister to ignore public policy expertise across all areas of government business. It allows him to give free rein to climate denialists within his caucus such as Craig Kelly, and at the same time disregard the expertise from within the public service and refuse to meet with experienced and expert leaders who have devoted their lives to public and community service in emergency management and relief.
It allowed the outsourcing of grant processes to private organisations such as the Great Barrier Reef Foundation rather than keeping such work where it should be within the public service. It has led to a profusion of labour hire, contracting and consulting arrangements across the public service rather than an investment in ongoing expertise. And it implicitly pressures public servants to do their political masters’ bidding.
So it is rot but it is also misdirection.
We are not talking about tapping into the “expertise” of MPs but the deliberate actions of former sports minister Bridget McKenzie’s office in setting aside a merit process for one that was determined by political advantage. A process that disregarded conflicts of interest, program guidelines or any consideration of the requirement to spend Commonwealth monies appropriately.
If it was a public servant or servants responsible for such an abuse of power and position we would not be talking about resignation or a parliamentary inquiry but a referral to the Australian Federal Police.
There is no reason why any politician of any leaning and their staffers/advisors should be held to a different standard than public servants when it comes to the management of the public purse.
Yes, we “live and breathe” in our communities but this does not absolve members of parliament from being accountable for our actions.
Yet this is a government from which no one resigns or takes responsibility for their actions. They mislead parliament, they break the law, they try to pass on responsibility for decisions to public servants whose advice they ignore, they are only forced into retreat by the anger of the Australian people, and still nobody takes responsibility.
This isn’t a surprise as this government is led by the chief of buck-passing. The chief who brought back to the front bench ministers who had previously been forced to resign. The chief who has lashed out at all and sundry rather than take responsibility for his lack of leadership this summer.
If we want to rebuild trust in public life it can only start by a commitment to a federal integrity body with teeth, valuing public service expertise and with the resignation of Minister McKenzie before parliament resumes.