Pork-barrelling: the heart of democracy, or ineffective corruption?

Pork-barrelling is definitionally corrupt conduct, yet politicians insist on the right to do it. And it’s not even clear that it works.

(Image: Private Media)

This is part three of The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia. Read part two here, and the whole series here.

Pork-barrelling is the most costly form of soft corruption in Australia, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars a year in wasted taxpayer funds at the state and federal level.

And corruption it is: Transparency International defines political corruption as including “manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers.”.

Pork-barrelling involving the allocation of taxpayer funding away from outcomes in the public interest to partisan goals or to reward friends is merely a large-scale version of what is widely accepted as illegal if done on an individual basis.

Indeed, there are laws against what is termed electoral bribery: the Commonwealth Electoral Act outlaws asking for, receiving, giving, offering or promising “any property or benefit of any kind” in exchange for a vote, but “a declaration of public policy or a promise of public action” is exempted: bribery is prohibited, but announcing a policy to bribe is not. And, as legal researcher Susanna Connolly has pointed out, prosecutions under such laws at any level are vanishingly rare.

Moreover pork-barrelling punishes not merely taxpayers through misallocation of funds, but voters in electorates not regarded as meriting pork-barrelling — and particularly those in safe seats held by opposition parties.

In the case of the sports infrastructure grants funds rorted by Nationals MP Bridget McKenzie, both safe Coalition and safe Labor seats received less funding than seats the Coalition had identified as target seats in the 2019 election.

Indeed, pork-barrelling can in some polities transform into something much more sinister — the deliberate starving of funds of electorates that dare vote against a government.

Much of the research and analysis of pork-barrelling has been taken up with discussing whether pork is directed at safe seats or marginal seats. As Labor’s Andrew Leigh, then an economist, noted in a 2008 paper on pork-barrelling, there is extensive evidence for both kinds, as well as theories as to when either one might predominate.

But it’s probably more useful to understand that pork can be used for different purposes, both contrary to the public interest. It can be directed toward marginal seats for partisan purposes, as the sports rorts were, or it can be directed toward a party’s base — like regional projects, drought assistance, agricultural support and other National Party-driven programs — in order to reward core supporters.

In this context, it is noteworthy that as a rural and regional party, the Nationals are the only party in Australian politics that is explicitly and fundamentally sectional, rather than national, in its focus — unlike all other parties, the Nationals exist not serve the public interest, but a minority sectional interest. It’s not surprising that it’s the National Party, across political generations, that is most strongly associated with pork-barrelling and the rorting of grant programs.

At least in Australia, the most rorted programs related to infrastructure and regional development — which have been combined in a single department since the Howard years. Infrastructure programs have been heavily skewed by the Coalition toward Coalition electorates, usually with Nationals ministers holding the infrastructure/transport portfolio, and funding allocated, until the Turnbull years, on the basis that the Coalition refused to invest in urban infrastructure.

In recent years the Coalition also rejected the recommendations of the government’s infrastructure assessment body Infrastructure Australia and committed to a number of major infrastructure projects without an approved business case — a 2020 Grattan Institute study showed that of 32 major projects, the majority of which had a Commonwealth contribution, 24 had not been properly assessed at the time of commitment.

But politicians are insistent that they must be allowed to pork-barrel and take political factors into consideration in allocating resources, that such behaviour is the core of politics and of governing in a democracy.

In recent months, with the Morrison and Berejiklian governments becoming more and more openly engaged in pork-barrelling, there is less reluctance to be open about it.

“All governments and all oppositions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour,” said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “The term pork-barrelling is common parlance. It is not something that I know the community is comfortable with. If that’s the accusation made on this occasion …. then I’m happy to accept that commentary.”

The NSW premier’s office had previously worked hard to cover up evidence of rampant pork-barrelling of the quarter-billion dollar Stronger Communities fund in NSW.

Pork-barrelling thus occupies an interesting space in soft corruption: the community regards it as inappropriate, and definitionally it is corrupt conduct, but politicians insist on the right to do it, and have shaped electoral laws to make sure they can, despite ritually denouncing it when in opposition.

The one government to substantially amend the rules around pork-barrelling was the Rudd government, which established what became the Commonwealth Grant Rules and Guidelines (CGRGs). That followed a review of grant administration in the wake of the regional rorts exposed by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in the 2007 election campaign.

The rules have considerably tightened the administrative requirements for public servants in allocating grants and imposed obligations on ministers in regard to how they handle assessments of grants.

It’s significant that when the Morrison government set out to rort the sports infrastructure grants fund, it deliberately chose a body, Sports Australia, that at that point fell outside the application of the CGRGs. An attempt by the ANAO to expand best practice guidelines in grant administration further was also halted by the Turnbull government.

A persistent question is the extent to which such misuse of taxpayer funding is actually effective in delivering votes. Despite extensive efforts by researchers, the questions remains unresolved. When Andrew Leigh surveyed the literature as part of his own study, he found research showing both no effect and increases in votes for governments. However, his own study of four regional programs that had been disproportionately targeted to Coalition seats — though not to marginal seats — showed a statistically significant impact in the 2004 election, particularly for the Roads to Recovery program.

In contrast, in the wake of McKenzie’s rorting, William Bowe examined the impact of the sports grants on the 2019 election and found “when polling booth and sport grants data are aggregated into 2288 local regions designated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there turns out to be no correlation whatsoever between the amount of funding they received and how much they swung to or against the Coalition”.

In both cases, special circumstances might have applied at the relevant elections, but the results add to the persistent unresolved status of whether pork-barrelling even works — and if it does, whether it works in marginal seats.

Ultimately, any resolution of the problem of pork-barrelling lies with completely removing politicians from any grant administration, leaving politicians to “declare public policy” on what grant programs are for — and leave their administration to bureaucrats.

Next: conflicts of interest run rampant.

Peter FrayPeter Fray

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