The Politics    Thursday, December 16, 2021

Sweet 16

By Rachel Withers

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivering the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivers the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

A $16 billion mystery fund in the midyear budget reveals a government primed for election pork-barrelling

If it wasn’t already clear from Scott Morrison’s laughing reaction to his government being caught blatantly pork-barrelling, today’s midyear economic update confirmed that the Coalition has no intention of stopping. Amid Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s updated projections (based on some mightily rosy assumptions about COVID-19’s Omicron variant), a sweet $16 billion has been put aside over the next four years for “decisions taken but not yet announced”, including $5.6 billion in 2021–22 alone, in what is widely believed to be mostly an election-sweetening war chest. The number is a huge increase on the $9.7 billion included in the May budget, and on the $1.5 billion included in last year’s MYEFO, making it obvious that this fund is for rolling out splashy promises at the upcoming election. But what are the odds that such promises are going to be directed towards those voters unfortunate enough to live in safe Labor seats? 

As Guardian Australia reports, it’s not entirely clear how much of this mystery fund is going to be spent on election announcements, because the figure includes commercially sensitive spending items such as vaccine purchases. (Political reporter Paul Karp noted that the confusion could have easily been cleared up by publishing the figures separately.) A Treasury official in the lock-up had reportedly suggested that it was split about equally, meaning an approximate $8 billion war chest. Pressed on whether the $16 billion was primed for a spendathon, Frydenberg insisted that it was merely provisions for uncertainty, adding dismissively that the contingency could cover things that are “commercial in confidence” or “national security related”. (Defence would be covering the cost of the French submarine contract, Frydenberg confirmed.) Perhaps another turtle pond for the children of Reid is on the cards? Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, meanwhile, said that it was prudent to be setting aside money for unforeseen circumstances. A troubling poll in Lindsay, maybe?

Labor is, unsurprisingly, furious about the “slush fund”, with shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers arguing it will go towards “more rorts and waste” in the lead-up to the election. “Billions of dollars of your money, stashed away to be spent on the prime minister’s political interests and not on the national economic interests,” he said. “You can’t rort your way to recovery.” (One can imagine a poll-trailing Scott Morrison saying, Oh yes you can.) Shadow finance minister Katy Gallagher has questioned the $16 billion war chest in the context of an update showing $340 billion in cumulative deficits and $1 trillion of debt. “Looks like the PM wants to spend up big to buy votes before the harsh cuts come if he is re-elected,” she tweeted

It’s darkly ironic that the federal government was this week so intent upon uncovering the source of the “secret” money that is powering the campaigns of independent candidates across the country (and not just because, as Simon Holmes à Court claims, Frydenberg himself has received $1.7 million through the Kooyong 200 Club without disclosing a single donor). At the start of the week, Special Minister of State Ben Morton implied that such donors were somehow undermining democracy, seeking to “influence election outcomes” while “shroud[ing] their electoral income in secrecy”. There are plenty of mysterious funds being used to influence the upcoming election and undermine our democracy. Much of that mysterious funding is in the hands of our current government.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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