He watched at the closest of quarters as his verbal grenade was used to demolish the credibility of Prime Minister Paul Keating’s sports minister, Ros Kelly.
He’d know that all these years later, Labor’s Anthony Albanese and his MPs need only refine and re-use the parliamentary attacks of the time on Kelly and Keating to rip to shreds any defence McKenzie and Morrison might try.
The scripts are all there in dusty volumes of Hansard: the damaging censure motions; the pitiless late-night inquiries; the fusillade of unanswerable questions in Parliament.
Smith in the early 1990s was a young staffer of a young shadow finance minister named Peter Costello.
Costello in late 1993 and early 1994 made his political bones by merrily blowing up Ros Kelly’s political career when she fell afoul of the auditor-general for keeping no records of how she came to hand out $30 million of sports grants.
An unusually high proportion of the handouts had gone to Labor electorates, and the process had accelerated just before the tough 1993 election, which against all predictions, was won by Keating’s Labor Party.
The comparisons with the events that have led to the current travails of Bridget McKenzie are irresistible. The only significant change is the reversal in position of Labor and the Coalition.
Costello, a lawyer who knew his way around freedom of information rules, set to compiling a great pile of damning documents and using them to drive Kelly and Keating to distraction.
The big moment came when Kelly cracked and explained she had made her decisions about where grants should go on “a great big whiteboard” that sat in her office.
“What we now know is that a person only needs three things to administer a taxpayer-funded program: a whiteboard, a Texta colour and a rubber, especially the rubber because the rubber is very important to take the details off before the auditor comes in,” crowed Costello.
Back in Costello’s office, young Tony Smith was working on a line that would take the affair to detonation.
“Tony Smith thought of a name for it: sports rorts,” Costello wrote years later in his memoir.
The term caught the nation’s imagination and pursued Kelly out of the ministry and less than a year later, out of the Parliament. The Liberals won her seat, presaging the Keating government’s defeat in 1996.
“A politician can survive many things but not ridicule,” Costello noted in his memoir.
All these years later, the term “sports rorts” is pursuing Bridget McKenzie and bedevilling Scott Morrison.
And next week, as Parliament resumes, with Morrison reeling from a wrathful summer, the last thing he and his government needs is a clever turn of phrase, invented two-and-a-half decades ago by the fellow from his own party who is now in charge of the House of Representatives, detonating again. And again, and again, until the government’s early hopes for the year are rubble.
The adventures of Bridget McKenzie are, you’d imagine, about to come to an end.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.