Crack down on pork-barrelling to restore trust in politics: new Grattan Institute report

Pork-barrelling – misusing public money for political gain – is common in Australia and it’s undermining our democracy, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

New politics: Preventing pork-barrelling catalogues egregious examples of Coalition and Labor federal and state governments using grants for infrastructure and services to ‘reward’ voters in government seats and ‘buy votes’ in marginal seats. This means worthy projects in other electorates miss out.

Of 19,000 grants allocated by the former federal Coalition government under 11 grant programs between 2017 and 2021, $1.9 billion went to Coalition seats but only $530 million to Labor seats. Across a sample of programs in the three biggest states, government seats got more than $1 million on average, compared to just over $300,000 on average for opposition seats.

Some programs stood out. The federal Community Development Grants program allocated more than four times as much on average to government seats compared to opposition seats. For the NSW Stronger Communities Fund it was almost six times as much.

‘Pork-barrelling may be legally grey, but it is not good government,’ says report lead author and Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood.

‘It wastes taxpayers’ money, undermines public trust in our political leaders and institutions, and promotes a corrupt culture.

‘Pork-barrelling is not new but is being normalised – some politicians now excuse it or even openly defend it.’

The report finds that most of the current rules designed to prevent the politicisation of grant programs leave politicians too much wiggle room.

To crack down on pork-barrelling:

  • Grant programs should be open, competitive, and merit-based.
  • Ministers should be able to establish grant programs and define the selection criteria but should not be involved in choosing who receives grants.
  • A multi-party standing parliamentary committee should oversee compliance and interrogate any minister or public official who deviates from the rules.
  • Funding for Auditors-General across the country should be increased to enable wider and more frequent auditing of grant programs.

‘Taking the pork off the table would improve the quality of public spending and strengthen our democracy,’ Ms Wood says.

‘It would lay the foundations for a new way of doing politics in Australia that safeguards the public interest over political interests.’

This report is the second in Grattan Institute’s New politics series. The first, published in July, made recommendations to end the growing ‘jobs for mates’ culture in Australian politics. The third, to be published later this year, will investigate misuse of taxpayer-funded advertising for political gain.

For further enquiries email media@grattan.edu.au