Pork-barrelling – misusing public money for political gain – is common in Australia and it’s undermining our democracy.
Coalition and Labor federal and state governments have all used 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. 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.
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. 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’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.
Improve the grants process
- All grants should be allocated through an open, competitive, merit-based assessment process. Expected outcomes and selection criteria should be published, and selection processes documented.
- Ministers should decide grant programs not grant recipients: the process of shortlisting applicants and selecting grant recipients is an administrative function for the relevant department or agency.
- If a minister is unhappy with the recommended recipients, the
minister can redefine and republish the selection criteria but
should not intervene in shortlisting or selection.
- Any exception to the new process should be reported to the finance minister, who in turn should report to parliament at least
quarterly. It should also be published by the relevant department
alongside the outcome of the grant round.
Strengthen oversight of public spending
- A multi-party standing parliamentary committee should oversee compliance with grant rules.
- Funding for federal and state audit offices should be increased and their budgets should be determined at arms-length from the government of the day.
- A strong and well-resourced integrity commission should act as a last line of defence in investigating pork-barrelling.
Make grants administration more transparent
- Federal and state finance departments should publish annual reports covering all grant programs, including compliance with the process outlined here.
- State and territory governments should publish grant data more
consistently, through a portal such as the federal government’s