Reports that the Budget funnels hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure funding to “must-win” marginal seats have not attracted much attention. After seeing the same pattern year after year, no one is shocked – but that should not blunt our criticism.
Michael Read in the Australian Financial Review lays out the maths in cold black-and-white: five of seven major commitments in NSW are in marginal electorates, the largest Tasmanian project will run across Liberal marginals and Queensland and South Australia get outsized funding relative to their populations. The ACT has 1.7% of the population and gets 0.3% of the funding, which suggests the Liberals believe their one Senate seat in the territory is safe.
Last year, the Australia Institute did a deep dive into the murky world of federal grants programs with ministerial discretion. Since 2013, $2.8 billion (71%) of the $3.9 billion spent by these programs has gone to Coalition seats. Marginal Coalition seats received almost five times as much as safe Labor seats from national programs. It would take well over a billion dollars to compensate Labor seats for what they missed out on relative to marginal Coalition seats over the period.
Infrastructure programs, like the Urban Congestion Fund, are bedevilled by similar problems, as the Auditor-General has exposed.
The defence of pork-barrelling often echoes the sentiment expressed by then NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who confirmed that her government had pork-barrelled in order to “curry favour” with the community:
“It is not something that I know the community is comfortable with. … It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time by every government.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison shrugged off criticism of grants allocations, saying Coalition seats that got more money than neighbouring Labor seats “have a good local member”.
“The idea that being a flood victim in a National Party-held seat makes you more worthy than a flood victim who is in the Richmond electorate … is probably the most unethical approach I have ever seen.”
Pork barrelling also undercuts the important principle that funds should be directed toward areas of greatest need, and projects should be tested to ensure value for money. Outgoing Liberal MP John Alexander has suggested that responsibility for spending on infrastructure be given to an independent authority.
Politicians are fooling themselves if they think the community is merely “not comfortable” with pork-barrelling. People do not like to see their neighbours short-changed because they voted for the “wrong” local member. Governments ignore the growing anger at their peril.