October 31, 2021
Opinion by Greg Ray
Pork-barrelling is theft, plain and simple.
Every time politicians redirect money from programs meant to benefit people and communities that need it, pushing it instead into projects that benefit their electoral prospects, it is theft. We are used to calling it “pork-barrelling”, which makes it sound harmlesss. But it’s anything but harmless. It’s corrosive, wasteful, dishonest, and unethical and it my opinion it ought to be a criminal offence.
They say the term “pork barrelling” originated back in the 1700s when barrels of salted pork were allegedly provided as rewards to groups of people. Later it came to mean public spending directed to communities and projects for purely political reasons, in the hope and expectation of the bribe being rewarded with votes at election time. And sadly, it’s now embedded in “democratic” politics in a very damaging way.
Although in Australia at present Prime Minister Scott Morrison and former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian are widely accused of being leading exponents of the dark art of pork-barrelling, they are far from alone. Nor are the Liberals and Nationals – despite the grand scale to which they have elevated the practice – the only parties to indulge disgracefully in this fundamentally corrupt behaviour. Labor in power constantly pork-barrelled, robbing electorates it knew it could take for granted to win the favour of voters in marginal and swinging seats. I well recollect, for example, the intensely corrupt NSW government controlled by Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi strong-arming car importers into setting up a terminal at Port Kembla instead of Newcastle, for electoral reasons only. I recollect also the various times that Newcastle and the Hunter campaigned for major national defence projects, only to see the jobs and investment shoehorned into more politically important seats in other states.
So my criticism of the Morrison Government’s grand-scale pork-barrelling and Gladys Berejiklian’s efforts in the same field is not partisan. And anyway, it’s no answer to a valid criticism of one party to simply say that other parties do the same thing. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong and just because some other politician did just as bad or worse some time doesn’t change that one bit. You should be angry about it, no matter who is doing it. Here’s why.
You pay your taxes (unless you’re a big corporation, in which case you probably don’t, and that’s another problem) with the idea in mind that your tax contribution is added to those from every other taxpayer and then used by the government to pay for goods and services for you and everybody else. Some of that money goes to the things that are supposed to be bread and butter for our governments. Education, health, defence and so on. There’s recurrent expenditure, which means it’s budgeted for every year. There’s capital expenditure, which is to invest in roads, bridges, hospitals, cultural facilities, jet fighters and submarines. And there’s one-off programs, where a pool of money is set aside for some special purpose like regional development or local infrastructure or sporting facilities or the arts and communities can apply for a share of the pool.
Capital city bias
Pork-barrelling and other forms of resource allocation inequity happen in every type of funding allocation. People who live in regional Australia will be sadly aware, for example, of the massive extent to which they are routinely robbed – purely as a matter of course – by a system that overwhelmingly favours the capital cities. Just one minor example is the NSW annual arts budget, of which almost all is spent in Sydney, with only odd crumbs falling into the regions. Newcastle has a quite remarkable art collection and a truly remarkable pre-European and colonial history, and yet its art gallery and regional museum have to be funded from local government rates because the state government does not consider itself obliged to provide such services for any populations outside Sydney. Examine almost any departmental budget and you will see that the per capita spending outside the capital is very significantly lower than it is in the major city. The reason is political or, rather, electoral. The votes are mostly in the capital, so that’s where the money goes.
Disadvantaged communities often see the various discretionary spending programs announced by governments as opportunities to claw back some of what they are routinely deprived of in every single annual budget. But the bare-faced vote-buying and electoral bribery of the politicians robs them of even these chances to get some crumbs from the table. Consider the so-called “sports rorts” affair, for example. Disadvantaged communities across Australia worked hard putting together submissions and applications for grants to help them with really vital projects that would have done a great deal of good. But many of them were flat-out robbed when senior members of the government stepped in and redirected the money to electorates that suited their own selfish political purposes. Huge sums were handed out to communities that didn’t really need them, for facilities they hadn’t even asked for. It was theft, no less. And yet when anybody tried to point out the criminality of it all we heard was “Oh well, Labor did it too – remember the whiteboard affair?” As I said before, that’s not a valid response.
Anyway, sports rorts has been dwarfed by other, much bigger programs of systematic theft by the Morrison Government, diverting funds that would have been transformational for needy communities into politically expedient channels that benefited a few. It has been reported, reliably, that the government funnels cash from discretionary programs overwhelmingly into marginal seats held by Coalition MPs.
Which brings us to Gladys and Daryl and the ICAC hearings now attracting so much attention. The hearings are about pork-barrelling, and also about honesty and transparency in government, but they are seen by many as a mean attack on a popular former premier. No doubt about it, Gladys Berejiklian is popular and with good reason. When Covid-19 first hit NSW there was pressure from the big business community and its media mouthpieces to avoid any health measures that might harm the economy. The Morrison Government obediently fell into line and, had it been able to have its way, I for one imagine the state’s initial Covid death-toll would have been immensely higher than it was. The fact that business and the federal government did not get their way comes down mostly to the state premiers who evidently did not want to commit political suicide simply because Scott Morrison and Rupert Murdoch said they ought to.
What about Gladys and Daryl?
So, what about Gladys and Daryl? What’s the big deal if she had a thing for a shonk? Isn’t that her private affair? Yes it is. Except when she was bullying or bypassing public servants and dipping into public funds to send money to the electorate of her disgraced lover. She’s arguing that their fling was over by the time she was throwing money at thew undeserving projects that he nominated to her. That’s her get-out. They weren’t lovers anymore. In fact, her official line is that the relationship was not significant enough to be declared. Which might be almost a little bit acceptable except for this Murdochy schmooze piece in one of the fiblord’s joke-rags in which she portrayed herself as a woman wronged in love by a man she had once thought of marrying. See the problem?
Anyway, let’s accept that she didn’t want the Coalition to lose Daryl’s electorate and that’s why she took his advice and threw ridiculous sums of cash at undeserving projects at Wagga Wagga. This is money, remember, that could have done wonders for communities that really needed help. Money that people in deserving areas had spent a lot of time and effort sincerely applying for in the honest belief that they might get some government support. Instead, they were robbed and the money went to shore up the seat of Gladys’s disgraced lover – former or otherwise as the case may be.
Except Gladys says pork-barrelling is just a part of life. We know that because she said as much, last November when another big round of pork-barrelling was being exposed and criticised. You must recall how she denied she’d been personally part of her government’s diversion of $140million funds from a program called the “Stronger Communities Fund” into politically favoured electorates. Many local councils were never even told there were funds available to apply for, and huge sums went to wealthy and well-resourced areas, bypassing areas of chronic need. Gladys’s staff admitted shredding documents relating to who approved the spending, and on what basis, but it was noted that many of the recovered documents had a space at the bottom for the premier’s signature.
Asked for her views on pork-barrelling: “It’s not an illegal practice. Unfortunately it does happen from time to time by every government,” she said.
Every time I hear about the abuse of programs like this, whether it’s Gladys’s political slush fund or Morrison’s wild car-park extravaganza, I get angry. Imagine what those hundreds of millions of dollars could have done for people who needed the resources. It’s a disgrace, and it should be against the law.