Nationals leadership in turmoil as McKenzie falls
A POLITICAL scalping has marked the start of the parliamentary year as Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie fell on her sword after the damaging $100 million sports grant scandal.
Nationals were frantically making phone calls last night, jockeying for position in the race to become deputy leader ahead of a party room meeting tomorrow. But they were not ruling out a broader leadership spill which could see Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack in trouble.
Queenslanders David Littleproud and Matt Canavan are considered a strong chance of promotion in the wake of Senator McKenzie's resignation from federal Cabinet and as the Nationals' deputy leader, as well as Victorian Darren Chester.
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens's report into the sports funding scandal found Senator McKenzie breached ministerial standards by failing to declare a conflict of interest when granting cash to a shooting club she had just joined.
But Mr Gaetjens, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's former chief of staff, found there was no political bias in how the grants were handed out.
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.
But Mr Gaetjens' report found a $36,000 grant to the Wangaratta Clay Target Club was in breach of standards.
It also revealed two further conflicts - grants given to the Northern Territory and Warrnambool branches of Field and Game Australia, where Senator McKenzie held membership with the overarching body.
Mr Morrison said Senator McKenzie tendered her resignation after Mr Gaetjens' report found she had breached ministerial standards.
"In relation to a conflict of interest, the secretary concluded that the timing is such that the potential conflict should have been clear," he said.
Ministers who overrule a statutory body's recommendations on grants processes, such as Sports Australia, will now be required to report on why they did so, Mr Morrison said.
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."
Meanwhile, Nationals will convene a special party room meeting on Tuesday to pick Senator McKenzie's replacement as leader in the Senate.
There are several positions up for grabs, including deputy leader and Senate leader of the Nationals and the role of Agriculture Minister.
Nationals were last nightsaying that unless Queenslanders unite behind a single candidate for deputy leader, Victorian Darren Chester would be in the box seat for deputy and a spot in Cabinet.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack will be acting Agriculture Minister until Senator McKenzie's replacement is chosen.
The sports grants scandal has been damaging for the Morrison Government, dominating headlines for more than a fortnight.
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."
Two-thirds of the grants handed out in Queensland, or almost $10 million out of a total $15 million, went to marginal seats targeted or held by the Coalition.
Senator McKenzie had faced heavy pressure both internally and externally to go, but would not resign until the Gaetjens' report was finalised.
It was handed to the Prime Minister late on Saturday night.