September 2021


Roll out the pork barrels

By Richard Denniss
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Why politicians love being caught rorting in their electorates

Politicians don’t fear criticism, they crave it. Vocal criticism from their enemies is proof that they are delivering for their friends. The condemnation of funding programs such as “sports rorts” and the train-station car parks wasn’t just anticipated: the inevitable criticism was part of the comms strategy. The prime minister, the finance minister and the infrastructure minister all used their subsequent interviews on the “scandals” to talk up their determination to deliver solutions to the problems of everyday Australians.

Most people say they are cynical about politics, but in my experience most people aren’t nearly cynical enough. They say things like, “Government MPs only care about themselves,” yet even when there’s clear proof that they are right, they look away. Some truths are just too ugly. But we need to look closely.

In the 1950s, there was a Looney Tunes cartoon series starring Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog. Each episode started with the rivals arriving at “work” carrying lunchboxes and exchanging pleasantries before clocking on for their shifts of, respectively, hunting and protecting a flock of sheep. At the end of each episode, the rivals would clock off again and congenially swap notes about the day: it was about worker solidarity. For sheepdogs, like boxers in a ring, lawyers in court and politicians in parliament, fighting wolves was just a job. It wasn’t personal.

Aussies Cafe in Parliament House is where the sheepdogs and the wolves clock on. Destroying the policy, career and sometimes the life of a political opponent is serious business but, in most cases, it’s not personal. Just as boxers don’t complain about getting punched, professional politicians don’t complain about being criticised. No one wants to have their ear bitten, but no matter how much it hurts, a fair punch is still fair.

So it was that decades ago I was sitting at Aussies with a rival political strategist when he said to me, “You know that Labor are the National Party’s best spokespeople, don’t you?” Like all good strategists, he knew how to set traps. If I asked what he meant, I had to flatter his insight, but if I didn’t, I was letting my ego get in the way of my knowledge. Of course I asked, and of course he smiled.

“Labor are always attacking the Nats for pork-barrelling in their own electorates,” he said. “Labor know they can’t win the safe National Party seats in the bush, so they attack the Liberals in the city newspapers for wasting heaps of money on gold-plated town halls and grandstands in the bush… The Nats just clip those headlines out and tell anyone who’ll listen that Labor is spot on.”

The criticism is the comms strategy. What’s the point of spending millions on a local project if no one knows about it? And how could a local MP take credit for a new oval, park or netball court if every electorate gets a new sporting facility every few years? It needs to be unusually generous. Without the attack about favouritism, how can the local MP prove they are doing their job?

Provoking criticism to build power is not a new idea. An agent provocateur is one who encourages an opponent to make the wrong move, to trick them into breaking a law or doing something that harms their own reputation. Unions and environment groups in Australia know all about them, and outside politics provoking critics is a tried and true PR strategy. “Ambush marketing” works in this manner: a little-known brand attracts broad criticism (and publicity) for gatecrashing a big sponsor’s well-planned event. As Andy Warhol once said: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”

So, should we really be surprised that the same politicians who will “do anything to stay in power” simply shovel public money at their friends, knowing full well they will be criticised? In an environment in which there is no sanction, legal or political, for playing favourites with our funds, isn’t getting caught delivering for your friends the smart play?

Once upon a time, ministers resigned for the mere appearance of impropriety. Labor’s Mick Young resigned in 1984 when his wife failed to declare to customs a Paddington Bear toy purchased overseas. In 1994, Ros Kelly resigned as sports minister and then from parliament after the “sports rorts affair” revealed the funnelling of public money to her Labor government’s marginal seats.

But there is no mention of corruption in our Constitution, no federal anti-corruption body to investigate it and literally no law to stop a minister from drawing up a spreadsheet of key marginal seats, thinking up a program to pour public funds into those seats and appearing with candidates wielding novelty cheques to promote their largesse with our money. Once upon a time, a general belief in probity held governments back, but once upon a time milk came in bottles too.

Under existing Australian law, and in the absence of shame, there are literally no costs to a minister or government that just hands over public money to projects in their marginal seats because it helps them and their party. None. And no matter how much the traditional news media rage against the lack of accountability, or how much the auditor-general protests, there will almost certainly be a lot more money handed out through such funds in the future. There are obvious benefits from doing so and the one bit of economics every successful politician excels at is the ability to weigh the personal costs and benefits of everything they do. Unfortunately for those who fear this trend, while the price of pork-barrelling is falling, technological and cultural changes mean the benefits are rapidly rising.

Platforms such as Facebook and Google have both undercut the power and reach of traditional news media, while simultaneously giving government backbench MPs the best marketing device since federation. For a couple of hundred dollars, a backbencher who will never get a run on the nightly news can reach out to thousands of swinging voters in their seat. And with some taxpayer-funded pork to sell, they have access to both the product and the marketing channels required to shift votes. All for less than the cost of a flight to Canberra.

Which brings me back to the Nationals’ long-running faith in the benefits of being criticised for recklessly spending other people’s money in their electorates. A key plank in the Nats’ strategy in the past was the use of local media, because local papers and radio stations care a lot more about the benefits of lavish local spending than the national newspapers care about broad impropriety and inequity. (In short, the local media paid a lot more positive attention than the national media paid negative attention.) These days, while local media is in decline, any backbench MP can help curate the social media feed of their local voters. But only government MPs can sell simple stories about the car parks, netball courts and change-rooms that they personally have been “blamed” for delivering.

The clearest proof of the big political value of these small grants schemes is how deeply involved the prime minister’s office is in deciding who gets the cash. We know from the auditor-general’s inquiry into the latest “sports rorts” that not only did the then sports minister Bridget McKenzie have a colour-coded spreadsheet that highlighted the marginal seats her Nationals party was chasing at the upcoming election, her office exchanged at least 136 emails with the prime minister’s office to help make $100 million worth of “ministerial decisions”.

With the prime minister’s office overseeing spending of more than $400 billion a year, the relatively tiny sports and car-park grant programs shouldn’t warrant a lot of attention. But clearly Scott Morrison knows that the political significance of these programs is far in excess of their cost to the budget.

And it’s not just time or money that the Morrison government spent. It also spent some political capital ignoring the findings of an auditor-general inquiry into the spending and declaring that the spreadsheets were just one of the ways it was delivering for ordinary Australians. Why would a government invite weeks of criticism over such small beer, unless the pain from the mainstream media was trivial compared to the electoral gain in the key seats?

The Nationals have never been ashamed of the success of their pork-barrelling, and it’s unlikely their city cousins are going to lose their appetite for some taxpayer-funded pork either, now that they have a taste for it. Indeed, if we take Scott Morrison at his word (admittedly a risky idea), there will be many more of these ministerial slush funds announced between now and the next election. In fact, they’ve already budgeted for it. So what, if anything, can be done about it?

At an institutional level, a federal corruption watchdog would certainly help, but, to be clear, while the spending of taxpayer money to win votes is a corruption of historic process, it’s not actually illegal in Australia.

The big change needed is in the media. Just as cricket batsmen employ former pacemen and spinners to teach them a bowler’s best tricks, politicians employ former journalists to teach them how to bat away pesky questions or, even better, to avoid questions altogether. And just as bowlers need to keep developing new deliveries if they are to continue taking wickets, journalists need to keep changing tactics in response to the increasing shamelessness of our elected representatives. Put simply, if the media is going to platform pathological liars, they need to take steps to protect their audience.

These days politicians appear live on air with pre-prepared deceptions that are often so audacious that even the best-prepared interviewers are lost for words – which is, of course, the plan. But rather than blaming themselves for not being better prepared, journalists should abandon the idea of catching the deceiver in the act and instead, like detectives, use the CCTV footage. Rather than deliver “gotcha” responses to deliberate deceptions live on air, the presenter should go on air later, play the offending comments and carefully correct them. Reliably informing their audience should be the most important principle.

Second, journalists need new formats to confront new media-management tactics. Sure, fact-checking the news is important and the ABC’s Media Watch is fun, but why do we subject journalists to more sustained scrutiny than the government of the day? Why not dedicate a show to placing the sustained dissembling, deception and outright lies of politicians into the kind of context that makes them difficult to repeat?

And third, while viewers are clearly turning off the contrived cat fight that the ABC’s Q&A has become, the original idea of letting viewers ask questions of experts and MPs remains important. How about putting more power in the hands of viewers and letting viewers vote for the topics they want discussed, the voices they want heard and the questions they want asked? What could be more responsive to the needs of the public than asking them what they want, and gauging their real-time reaction? And what could be more transparent than letting people “vote up” the questions they want asked, just as they do on Zoom all the time?

Politicians don’t mind criticism, but they hate ridicule. They hate when voters learn of their hypocrisy, and they hate being held accountable for the promises they decided not to keep. Unless the media, or the public, can find new ways to increase the price that politicians must pay when they dissemble and deceive, and distribute public money as their own, there will be more politicians willing to undermine the foundations of our democracy. It’s not inevitable that we will develop such solutions, but it is inevitable that our politicians will fail us unless we do.

Richard Denniss
Richard Denniss is the chief economist at The Australia Institute.

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