Hewson's View: A very Trumpian response on sports rorts

Defending the indefensible: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is following the lead of US President Donald Trump in his handling of the sports rorts affair. Photo: Aaron Schwartz, Shutterstock.com
Defending the indefensible: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is following the lead of US President Donald Trump in his handling of the sports rorts affair. Photo: Aaron Schwartz, Shutterstock.com

Alan Dershowitz, Emeritus Harvard Professor in constitutional and criminal law, and a key member of Trump's impeachment defence team, has famously said: "The defendant wants to hide the truth because he's generally guilty. The defence attorney's job is to make sure the jury does not arrive at that truth". It is obvious that he set out to muddy the impeachment waters by making a statement in Trump's defence in the Senate impeachment trial, that was initially interpreted as saying that a president can do anything if he believes that his election is in the public interest to get re-elected - it is reasonable for a public official to equate what is in their own political interest with the public good.

Having thereby stirred a hornet's nest of legal objections, he subsequently "corrected" the interpretation by arguing instead that a president could not be impeached for a quid pro quo that would benefit their re-election if that president believed the re-election was in the public interest. In Trump's case, it was therefore OK for him to threaten to withhold promised military spending until the Ukrainians initiated an inquiry into Joe Biden, his likely political opponent. To me, it seems that "legalise", and deliberate obfuscation, are now the ultimate defence of the political scoundrel!

Trump certainly operates as if what is "good" for him personally is "good" for America - indeed, fundamental to "Making America Great Again". It is most disturbing that elements of the Trump/Dershowitz play book have been embraced by Scotty from Marketing, as evidenced in his handling of Bridget McKenzie and the sports rorts scandal. Clearly, McKenzie had a conflict of interest in making a grant to a clay-shooting club of which she was a member - a hanging offence. However, Scotty wouldn't acknowledge any wrongdoing beyond this.

Indeed, he has gone to great lengths to claim that, beyond her failure to appropriately declare this conflict, McKenzie had done nothing wrong. All grants she made were "eligible", "no rules were broken", and she had the "ministerial discretion", and was only exercising normal ministerial powers, to override the recommendations of Sport Australia in making them.

However, while it is true that McKenzie would normally have had the discretion to override her department in making such grants, this discretion didn't exist in this case as Sport Australia had been established by the Parliament as the "independent" authority to assess all proposals as the basis of such grants. Moreover, Sport Australia had complained to McKenzie, pre-election, about how their process and independence was being compromised.

The, also independent, Auditor-General had then found that some 73 per cent of the grants made by McKenzie were against the recommendations of Sport Australia, and were not therefore allocated on "merit", but to marginal seats the government wanted to hold or win in the fast-approaching election. So, essentially, Scotty has been arguing that these grants were made "in the national interest", to provide important infrastructure to many struggling, community, sporting organisations - implicitly, his re-election was in the national interest. I assume Dershowitz would be proud!

Scotty has been arguing that these grants were made "in the national interest".

Scotty's strategy was also designed to avoid any further questioning of the involvement of himself, his office, and other colleagues in the government, although it couldn't avoid a situation where organisations that were ranked highly by Sport Australia, but missed out, would start to agitate for their money, as is happening.

Scotty's rhetoric in announcing his Ministerial Code of Conduct, and his undertaking to enforce it as a defining feature of his government, back in August 2018, now rings particularly hollow. He said: "I expect all ministers in the Australian government to live up to the high standards expected of them by the Australian people at all times. The Australian people deserve a government that will act with integrity and in the best interests of the people they serve. Serving the Australian people as ministers ... comes with expectations to act at all times to the highest possible standards of probity".

The allocation of these, and a host of other, grants is a "corruptible process". The excesses and abuse in the sports rorts scandal clearly document the case for the establishment of a National Corruption Commission, as a matter of urgency. Expect Scotty to continue to resist!

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.