The Politics    Wednesday, December 15, 2021

It’s the rort that counts

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison fronting a press conference in Brisbane today. Image © Russell Freeman / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison fronts a press conference in Brisbane today. Image © Russell Freeman / AAP Images

Nothing can stop the government from pork-barrelling, except voting it out

The Coalition has proven (again) exactly why we need a powerful federal corruption watchdog with retrospective powers – and exactly why the government doesn’t want one. Nine Media’s extensive analysis of federal grants, which found that Liberal electorates have received three times more taxpayer funding than Labor electorates, hasn’t surprised anyone. But the shamelessness of the government’s response has nonetheless been breathtaking. Asked in a press conference to explain how Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson received $43 million, while the adjoining Labor seat of Lilley received just $930,000, Scott Morrison laughed in the public’s face. “Well, Dickson must have a very good local member,” he shot back. “The member for Ryan is a great local member,” the PM roared, speaking of the Queensland seat he was campaigning in, making it quite clear that his government knew what it had done and felt no qualms about doing it again (with the help of an “election war chest” worth almost $10 billion). It seems that nothing – not shame, not scathing audit office reports, not Senate inquiries, not major front-page stories – can stop this government from misusing taxpayer funds. Nothing other than being removed from office, that is.

It’s obvious that the Coalition’s pork-barrelling is “out of control”, as Labor leader Anthony Albanese put it today, just as it’s obvious why the government’s proposed integrity commission wouldn’t have the power to investigate such activities. In The Monthly’s February cover essay, editor Nick Feik catalogued the endless scandals the PM has walked past. But this year has only seen that number multiply, with scandals often competing for coverage. (This week, a ministerial review concluded that a company part-owned by Energy Minister Angus Taylor did illegally poison endangered grasslands, but the story barely got a look-in.) Since that essay was published, the government has been caught out for pork-barrelling multiple times, whether through its commuter car park fund (“sports rorts on steroids”) or yet another round of its Building Better Regions Fund (a fund it may be gearing up to exploit once more, as Ballarat MP Catherine King noted this week), while there are concerns the Coalition will “streamline pork-barrelling” with its $800 million manufacturing grants. But it’s clear that the government – in its MPs own words – doesn’t care.

Morrison’s callous response today is no doubt predicated on his calculation that the majority of voters also don’t care about pork-barrelling, or that they think both major parties engage in it (or perhaps that some voters even like it, if they are in marginal seats that benefit from it). But there are plenty of voters who do care, as the growing integrity-driven independents movement has shown. On some level the Liberals appear to understand that, and the party is growing increasingly aggressive towards independent candidates. Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst yesterday emailed party members, warning about “left-wing independents putting Labor into power”. Climate 200 founder Simon Holmes à Court responded: “It says much about the place of the modern Liberal Party on the political spectrum that it thinks rooting out corruption and addressing the very real issues raised by so many women this year is left wing.”

The Opposition, meanwhile, is eager to make “rooting out corruption” a Labor cause. Speaking to reporters in Tasmania, Albanese appeared to warn the PM that Labor’s anti-corruption commission would be retrospective. “We need a national anti-corruption commission and we need it now,” he said. “I put the prime minister on notice that a national anti-corruption commission will be able to look at the sports rorts program and these rorted programs of taxpayer funds.”

Between Labor and the independents, the Coalition has plenty to worry about should it fail to secure a majority at the next election. You can be sure that it will be pork-barrelling all the more between now and then to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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