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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Yee-Fui Ng, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Monash University

Independent MP for Indi Helen Haines has introduced a private member’s bill to crack down on pork-barrelling.

Haines has argued pork-barrelling is happening right now ahead of the Dunkley byelection on March 2, where Labor is splashing out money hoping to retain the seat.

Without government or opposition support, the bill is unlikely to pass. But it puts the issue of pork-barrelling in the public eye. So would the proposed measures work?

How common is pork-barrelling in Australia?

Pork-barrelling involves governments channelling public funds to seats they hold and wish to retain, or seats they would like to win from an opponent, as a way of winning voters’ favour. This means the money is used for political purposes, rather than proper allocation according to merit.

We have been inundated with pork-barrelling scandals in recent years. This includes the car park rorts scandal, where 77% of the commuter car park sites selected were in electorates held by the then Coalition government, rather than in areas of real need with congestion issues.

This followed close on the heels of the “sports rorts” scandal. Bridget McKenzie resigned from cabinet following allegations she had intervened in the sport grants program to benefit the Coalition government while in a position of conflict of interest.

Read more:
The ‘car park rorts’ story is scandalous. But it will keep happening unless we close grant loopholes

My journal article shows pork-barrelling is an intractable problem across multiple governments over many decades and takes different forms based on electoral systems.

Australia has a single-member electorate parliamentary system, which makes it more susceptible to pork-barrelling than multi-member electorates such as Norway or Spain.

The belief is that politicians who “bring home the bacon” for their constituents are electorally rewarded for doing so.

This means a government has an incentive to strategically apportion benefits to marginal electorates to increase prospects of electoral success. There is also an incentive to bias the apportionment of funds towards electorates held by the party in power.

In short, rorts scandals keep happening because governments believe channelling money to marginal and government electorates will win them elections.

Read more:
Pork-barrelling is unfair and wasteful. Here’s a plan to end it

What does the Haines bill do?

The Haines bill requires all grant programs to have clear and publicly available, merit-based selection criteria and guidelines.

Second, the bill ensures robust reporting to the parliament about what grants are awarded, to whom and why. This includes requirements for ministers to report to parliament in a timely manner when they’ve gone against official advice from government departments about who should receive grants.

Third, the bill creates a new Joint Parliamentary Committee on Grants Administration and Investment Mandates. This committee would oversee grants administration, including compliance with guidelines.

Will this bill fix our broken system?

My article has argued that stronger legal accountability is needed to hold ministers responsible for the biased allocation of grants.

The bill seeks to enhance transparency by requiring stronger parliamentary disclosure of the allocation of grants.

A joint parliamentary committee would also increase scrutiny and accountability over grants administration.

But the bill does not go far enough in terms of enforcement. There should be penalties for breaches of grant rules. And these should be enforceable by an external scrutineer, such as an independent commissioner.

Without strong enforcement, existing laws will be deficient in preventing, deterring and punishing governments that allocate grant funding in a partisan fashion, rather than on merit.

Ensuring proper use of public money is crucial to preserving public trust in Australian democratic institutions. To improve accountability for the use of public funding, we need stronger and legally enforceable rules and regulations.

The Conversation

Yee-Fui Ng does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Independent MP Helen Haines has a plan to stamp out pork-barrelling. Would it work? –