Features Australia

Gladys & the ICAC porn

The politics of granting grants needs an overhaul

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

The daily revelations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales are providing satisfying sport for those who wish to see Gladys’s downfall made permanent, or perhaps simply wish to see petty corruption exposed. It must make painful viewing and reading for those who see Gladys as a victim, including those on the right of politics. What is being revealed – and this is one of ICAC’s strengths – is a peep behind the curtain. into how the world is really run. Much of it is cringeworthy, at many levels, and not a little will be embarrassing for the new Premier. ICAC porn is nothing if not entertaining and political reality is seldom pretty.

But let’s not miss the forest for the trees – a light is being shone on the way that parliamentary democracy has declined in Australia and on the extent of this decline. We now occupy the swamp of grants-driven politics. Grants are ubiquitous. There are grants for simply everything. Just check out Canberra’s online Community Grants Hub.

One might call this modern political disease the tyranny of the announcable. (Neville Wran, arguably Australia’s most successful politician, once said that if something is worth announcing, it is worth announcing seven times). What Gladys has been revealed to have indulged in is simply twenty-first century realpolitik, Australian style. With all its murkiness, its waste, its opportunity costs, its blackmail for favours, its deals, its lack of transparency, its skewing of priorities and its debunking of due process. This is how government now works. Government is the vehicle for delivering goodies to electorates, in the service of attaining and retaining power.


Does anyone remember the (mis)adventures of Bridget McKenzie? Gun clubs? It wasn’t that long ago. As one report noted in January 2020, ‘… the auditor general released a scathing report that found McKenzie’s office had conducted a parallel process to judge applicants to the $100 million community sport infrastructure grant program, skewing grants towards Coalition target and marginal seats’. The now resurrected career of the Minister for Regionalisation, Regional Communications and Regional Education is testimony to the sheer survivability of the working governance model of Australian politics. Politics trumps good government, of course, but now funding wars trump all.

Gladys said that we would ‘throw money at Wagga’. What is worse? Minor corruption to advance the interests of the boyfriend, or a totally corrupt system of grant-based governance that is indulged in by every government as a matter of course? The problem here is not just one of big government. It is also one of cargo cult government. It is especially a problem of regional politics. Non-metropolitan regions, which rightly perceive government to be city-centric, have grown to demand ‘their share’. Daryl Maguire, not coincidentally, occupied a rural seat.They expect. The model advanced by ‘rural independents’ like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott as well as by the likes of former Victorian MP Cathy Magowan and several others, has become the default position. Tony and Rob couldn’t believe their luck in 2010 when the election result was a dead-heat. They had waited their whole political lives for this. This was a rural independent’s dream come true. The recently retired deputy premier of NSW was not called Pork Barilaro for nothing. He wore the title as a badge of honour. Indeed, he opined in February this year that ‘pork barrelling is what elections are for’. You can’t get much more open than that. His then boss agreed, noting that all governments ‘prioritised’ some areas over others. Gladys said she was ‘simply being upfront and honest about the political process’.  ndeed, she was. Well, she was on that occasion, at any rate. ‘If we don’t like the way we do things, let’s all go in and collectively change it. We have to be honest about our system,’ she said. ‘I’m not suggesting it’s always the right way to do things, but I think we need to just be upfront about how things occur’.

But we know that governments will never change this, because grant chasing for your electorate is addictive behaviour. For ministers, it delivers power. For backbenchers it provides their raison d’être and their ticket to political longevity. Voters’ expectations of their representatives really are that low. Hence, there is little incentive for either major party, indeed, for any politician, to exit the game. And, as we know from painful recent experience, the system incentivises bad behaviour. Gaming the system isn’t confined to one side of politics, though the Nationals are best in breed. And it isn’t just about a few measly community grants. Massive infrastructure spending is up for grabs as well – roads, hospitals, university campuses and so on. Nor is this caper new. Another media report, this time in 2014, noted: ‘Hundreds of millions of dollars in the Abbott government’s Community Development Grants scheme have been tipped into projects in Coalition-held marginal seats in what Labor says is a return to the bad old days of electoral pork barrelling under the Howard government’. Note that the then opposition didn’t say, ‘let’s get rid of grants!’ For grants are the very currency of the modern polity.

I well remember, prior to the 2019 NSW election, taking a look at my then local member’s media releases over the previous twelve months. Every last one of them was an announcement of grant funding for a local project. The classical theorist of representative government, Edmund Burke, had this to say of the role of the parliamentary member: ‘Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole—where not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament’. The current lot are having none of that. They interpret their job as ‘getting stuff’ for their electorates as the path to re-election and a long career. When confronted with a ‘conscience vote’, they simply do a vox pop in the electorate to determine what their ‘conscience’ is in relation to matters of life and death.

Gladys and Daryl, in addition to deceiving the public, their colleagues, their electorates, their staff at the basest level, were playing a long-established game.Public servants and ministerial codes of conduct become, simply, inconvenient obstacles in the way of achieving the outcomes of a game that is played by all involved. That the daily observers of politics in the mainstream media do not get this is part of the problem. Politics-as-theatre and politics-as-entertainment have parked the greater questions of what our representative system is for. At a great cost to our democracy.

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