Nationals leader Michael McCormack has mounted a staunch defence of his embattled deputy Bridget McKenzie, saying she has done an “outstanding job” and dismissing calls for her resignation.
Speaking in Coffs Harbour on Friday, McCormack said the scandal-ridden community sport infrastructure program had been a “very good” scheme that had resulted in hundreds of community sports clubs receiving grants, particularly in regional areas.
“The fact is Bridget McKenzie has done an outstanding job as the sports minister and in her subsequent role of agriculture,” McCormack said.
“She is getting out there, making sure that regional communities are represented, making sure that the interests of regional people come first and foremost.”
Amid growing speculation that McKenzie could step down from her ministry, McCormack insisted she maintained his support to stay in her role as agriculture minister and deputy leader. He also dismissed suggestions that many Nationals MPs viewed her position as untenable as “just media speculation”.
The government has been fending off criticism about McKenzie’s handling of the grants program after a scathing auditor general report found she prioritised grants in marginal and target seats while ignoring a merit-based assessment process undertaken by Sports Australia.
But McCormack said people were “sick of politicians talking about themselves in the media”.
“At this time of crisis, I think there’s a lot better things to be talking about than a program which, honestly, provided a lot of good outcomes for a lot of particularly regional communities, and particularly little country towns.”
The secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens, is examining whether McKenzie breached ministerial standards in her administration of the sports fund, with reference to her membership of a clay shooting club that received a $36,000 grant.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Thursday that he would “take whatever action was necessary” once the investigation was concluded.
McCormack echoed Morrison’s remarks, saying McKenzie should be afforded due process, and he would not be “judge and jury”.
“I’m going to let process take its course. That’s the only right thing to do. In any situation in Australia, people are always innocent until proven otherwise,” McCormack said.
“Bridget McKenzie has declared her memberships, as she was required to do. Bridget McKenzie has followed the process, as she was required to do.
“And let me tell you, this process that she followed was way and above more transparent and more accountable than the processes the previous Labor governments put into place.”
“Let’s see what the secretary of PM&C, Philip Gaetjens, comes up with in his report. Let’s let that process take its natural course of process, and we’ll see what happens after that.”
He also rejected suggestions that Scott Morrison had been involved in the decision making process, despite the prime minister conceding that he made representations to McKenzie on behalf of MPs who had contacted his office.