Features Australia

Pork-barrelling: the real reason to be in politics

The moral case for fiscal rectitude

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

When it comes to parliamentary question time, I hold an equivocal position. On the one hand, I feel I should watch to it to keep myself informed of political developments. On the other, it’s easy to feel completely dispirited by the quality of the questions, the quality of the answers and the puerile tactics used by both sides.

My fall-back is to watch for a while before wandering off to do something else, like watering the pot plants. Last week, I did manage to hang around watching QT until after the deputy prime minister and leader of the National party, Barnaby Joyce, had responded to a question about government spending from a member representing a regional area.

Joyce’s answer underscored his complete failure to recognise that all the goodies he was listing – new roads, new bridges, new facilities for the area – are the result of the (enforced) largesse of taxpayers, present and future, who overwhelmingly live in other areas. In his mind, it’s the role of local members to snaffle as much pork as possible for the benefit of their electorate – and to boast about it

You might argue, of course, that this has always been the way the Nats (and formerly the Country party) have operated. It’s their reason to be part of the government. What’s wrong with a bit of agrarian socialism if the rewards head disproportionately to rural and regional areas?

The bigger problem is that pork-barrelling has become the modus operandi of all governments, both federal and state. When former NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, was asked about state government spending on projects based in Wagga Wagga – a new gun club, anyone? – she simply replied that ‘I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone that we throw money at seats to keep them’. She added that ‘at the end of the day, whether we like it or not, that’s democracy’. (Sorry, Gladys, not everyone would agree with you on that point.)

Former deputy premier of NSW and member of the Nats, John Barilaro, had a similar take. ‘When you think about it, every single election that every party goes to, we make commitments. You want to call that pork-barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, it’s what the elections are for’.

The federal government has also increasingly got into the habit of handing out the pork to win over voters. Who can forget that infamous whiteboard and Ros Kelly all those years ago when Hawkey was Labor prime minister? More recently, there were the $100 million sporting grants and the $660 million commuter car park programs.

When finance minister, Simon Birmingham, was asked about the lack of progress, as well as the potential fiscal impropriety, of the commuter car park program, he simply replied that ‘that’s what electorates expect, that’s what they vote on and governments are expected to listen. The Australian people had their chance and voted the Morrison government back in the next election and we are determined to get on with local infrastructure, as we are nation-building infrastructure’.

Get it? We promised something, we were voted in, it’s OK.

So where do you start? For one thing, the authority to approve and build commuter car parks is shared between local and state governments. Secondly, none of the car parks had been approved and some may never be. Thirdly, the idea that the handful of voters in these electorates who will use these car parks should be ‘listened to’ is a very worrying development. Shout out or you will be ignored seems to be the message.

In the electorate in which we live, there is currently a campaign being run by the local federal member to have an annoying rail level-crossing removed. There is even a website and printed material. But the truth is that this level-crossing has nothing to do with the federal government.

Its very tricky and expensive removal would involve the state government, the local government and the metropolitan train network. One presumes if a decision were to be taken to remove it, any money from the federal government would be received, albeit not necessarily gratefully.

But the broader point here is that there is now utter confusion (it could be deliberate) about the boundaries of the federation. The assumption too often made is that the activities that are legitimately the sole preserve of state and/or local governments can simply be encroached upon. Evidently, we are expected to thank our federal member for recently installed lights on some local netball courts.

It is surely ironic that it was that whisky-swilling, chain-smoking conservative Victorian premier, Henry Bolte, who foresaw in the 1960s the problems that this development would entail. ‘There will come a time when the federal government will be blamed for everything: an unmade road, the lack of an ambulance, a leaking school tap’.

Of course, the budgetary context in which pork-barrelling now flourishes is the overall key. Without there being an effective spending constraint, it’s easy for governments to continue to spend in areas where the greatest electoral advantages seem likely.

With the cost of servicing government debt at historic lows and few restrictions on raising government debt, it’s not surprising that governments are increasingly likely to say ‘yes’ rather than reject the pleas of the advocates of visible local projects.

It seems quaintly old-fashioned for governments to be weighing up the costs and benefits of proposed government spending and to accept only those programs that yield the highest net benefits – and not electoral ones.

But when governments incurred high costs servicing debt and the voting public rewarded observable fiscal discipline, this was standard practice. It’s why both Gonski school funding and the NDIS were knocked back during the Howard/Costello years.

It’s also why the Morrison/Frydenberg government failed to deliver a budget surplus in 2018-19 – a little less pork-barrelling would have easily secured a budget in the black, making those printed mugs less laughable.

You only need to take a look at the figures to understand the temptation. In 2017-18, the federal government’s net debt was $342 billion, with annual interest payments of $13.14 billion. Four years later in 2021-22, net debt is $729 billion – more than double – yet interest payments are $14.73 billion – an increase of only 10 per cent.

Cheap money means cheap politics and lots of pork.

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