Handing power to public servants won’t fix the problem of politically targeted grants. Governments should do less and spend less.
There’s a certain irony in a think tank established with a $30 million taxpayer-funded grant from state and federal Labor governments issuing a report criticising Coalition government “pork-barrelling”.
That’s the difference between Labor in power and the Coalition in office. Labor builds railway station car parks and finances think tanks. The Coalition just builds car parks.
To be fair, the Grattan Institute’s Preventing pork-barrelling released this week does refer to the ALP’s “Sports Rorts” of 1993, which awarded 66 per cent of grant money to Labor seats, but its focus is the federal Coalition. And the report does highlight what appears at least on the surface to be politics influencing the giving of grants.
For example, for $1.9 billion of discretionary grants awarded by the federal government between 2017 and 2021, seats held by the Coalition received on average double the funding compared with seats held by the opposition and for “some state government grant programs it was more than three times as much”.
According to the Grattan Institute, the use of “public resources to target certain voters for partisan purposes” verges on corruption and skews elections.
To the technocrats of the political elites, there’s no public policy problem that cannot be solved by giving bureaucrats more rules to administer. Which is exactly what Grattan recommends. It is prepared to let ministers frame the guidelines for grant programs but the shortlisting of applicants and the selection of winners should be left to public servants and a “strong and well-resourced integrity commission should act as the last line of defence in investigating pork-barrelling”.
These suggestions are well-meaning but naïve. The solution to pork-barrelling is to confiscate from politicians their pork and their barrels. The government should do less and spend less (perhaps in itself a naïve hope).
Handing the power of pork to the public service doesn’t fix the problem. For as long as politicians have the power to invent grant programs, their 25-year-old political hack advisers will find a way to write the guidelines to achieve whatever outcome is sought. If the politician’s adviser can’t do it, plenty of ambitious public servants are only too willing to oblige the government of the day.
(It is telling that it appears no one in the Commonwealth public service blew the whistle on Scott Morrison’s efforts to overturn practically every convention of responsible government in Australia. Why no one did is surely something to be investigated by the inquiry into the affair.)
This is not to say Preventing pork-barrelling doesn’t make some good points. Suggestions such as finance departments publishing data and annual reports on grant programs are long-overdue reforms.
The Grattan Institute is correct to note that pork-barrelling “creates an uneven playing field in elections – between incumbent governments (who hold the purse strings) and oppositions, as well as between major parties (who have the potential to form government) and minor parties and independents (who do not)”.
But the biggest threat to elections as an even playing field between political competitors is not pork-barrelling. Laws that limit the size of donations to candidates and political parties and how much can be spent on election campaigns are a more dangerous threat to democracy. Such laws are designed by incumbent political parties to entrench themselves at the expense of their competitors.
In Victoria, for instance, the Labor government passed laws that allow basically unlimited funding to the ALP from trade unions; simultaneously, a single donor is prohibited from donating more than $4320 to a single recipient in the four years between state elections. If that doesn’t skew elections, nothing does.
The Grattan Institute is a strong supporter of donation limits and spending caps in politics but it appears to fail to recognise the contradiction between its two positions.
Grattan (correctly) won’t trust politicians to administer grant programs for fear the programs would be manipulated to gain a partisan advantage, but at the same time, it is willing to trust politicians to design a regime to regulate political donations.
At least in the short term, it’s hard to imagine any sort of reform that overcomes voters’ desire for pork and the willingness of politicians to give it to them. Maybe when there’s no more pork to hand, out this might change.