On Sunday, Bridget McKenzie finally resigned from the ministry – setting off a leadership battle in the National Party in the process – but not for stealing $100 million dollars of Sports Australia’s money to run a re-election slush fund. It was a technicality, her membership of a clay target shooting club to whom she gave a grant constituted an conflict of interest in breach of the ministerial code.
It was a situation of resign or be sacked as Philip Gaetjens, secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, reported back to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a classified report that the Victorian Senator had breached the ministerial standards – which Mr Morrison wrote – by not disclosing her membership of the gun club to Mr Morrison or in the parliamentary register of interests.
The message sent by Morrison and Gaetjens, though left unspoken, is clear and should be incredibly worrying to those who, unlike those two, believe in parliamentary democracy. Feel free to break the laws set by Parliament. Steal taxpayer’s money. The message is as follows:
Do what ever you want. Just don’t break the Prime Minister’s arbitrary rules and we will support you. No matter how unlawful or unethical your actions, we will support you.
We keep hearing the cult-like chants of no rules were broken but the government is actively ignoring the more pressing issue of whether the law has been broken. It undoubtedly has. Ministers can’t spend money without clear legal authority to do so and, in the sports rorts case, there was absolutely none.
Without the rule of law, your rights no longer matter. After all, your rights are enshrined in law. If the government is no longer bound to the law, the government is no longer bound to your rights as a participant in Australian society.
But to the government, the rule of law isn’t an important democratic institution. It’s just red tape. Like transparent and accountable government, ministerial responsibility for their offices and portfolios, freedom of the press and a fearless and frank public service, the rule of law is yet another casualty of a government concerned only with keeping itself in power and in wealth.