Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred Senator McKenzie’s decision to award the grant to Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens, who will check whether her actions breached ministerial standards.
“I have allowed him to do that independently, I’m not putting any pressure on him one way or the other. He needs to do his job, that’s why he’s there,” Mr Morrison said in Canberra on Thursday.
“I have confidence and trust in his abilities, he will get under this task … in a timely way, he needs to assess that thoroughly and follow proper process.”
Labor’s shadow special minister for state, Don Farrell, wrote to Mr Gaetjens on Thursday asking for assurances the final report would be made public “at the first opportunity”.
Senator Farrell warned against a “sham” investigation to serve the political interests of the government.
“I trust your investigation will be a proper and detailed examination of the serious issues associated with the administration of the grants program,” Senator Farrell wrote. “Your investigation must advance the public interest – not the political interest of the Prime Minister or his cabinet.”
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton pledged his support for his cabinet colleague on Thursday morning, saying the Prime Minister was “not hanging people out to dry”.
“We’re not listening to the Twitter crazies,” Mr Dutton told Sydney radio 2GB. “We are looking at the facts and we make decisions based on that.”
Nationals leader Michael McCormack dined with Mr Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at The Lodge on Wednesday night, however, sources said it was “nothing more than just a meal and a regular chat”.
The auditor-general’s report last week slammed Senator McKenzie over her handling of the $100 million sports grants program, which she oversaw as sports minister, revealing she and her staff intervened hundreds of times to overturn the merit-based assessments of applications from sporting groups for cash.
The body at the centre of the scandal, Wangaratta Clay Target Club, pledged its support to Senator McKenzie on Thursday, with the club’s vice-president, Brian Reid, saying she did “nothing wrong”.
Mr Reid said the club would have applied for the grant “six months or more” before Senator McKenzie became a member.
“We would have applied for it well before she visited the club,” Mr Reid told Sky News Australia.
He said Senator McKenzie was gifted “full fee paying member” status by the club, which would have cost about $180.
Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen said the opposition’s call for the resignation of Senator McKenzie, who is now Agriculture Minister, had not be made lightly.
“We have in this instance and it’s not done lightly because it is an open and shut case,” he told ABC.
“I don’t care what party she is in. I don’t care what the internal ramifications for the Coalition might be or for the National Party leadership. Ministerial standards are meant to mean something. When you take that oath before the Governor-General, you sign up for those responsibilities.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra