Voters deserve better than pork-barrelling

The Yarra River is a symbol of Melbourne’s social, political and economic divide. Travel from east to west and the differences become evident, including as to which political party is dominant. But what has not been apparent until The Age’s exhaustive investigation into pork-barrelling is the gross imbalance in the amount of money flowing from the federal government to either side of the river.

The examination undertaken by our journalists Shane Wright and Katina Curtis of 19,000 federal grants over the past three years has revealed that the nine Liberal electorates east of the Yarra River have shared in more than $86 million while the nine Labor-held seats to the west have shared just $14 million.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham claimed it wasn’t possible for his department to determine into which electorates flowed billions of dollars of grants overseen by ministers.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen/Mark Stehle

Few would be naive enough to think pork-barrelling does not occur, to some extent, within most governments. Political parties are often tempted to favour voters who support them, and grants are a real and tangible way to show gratitude for that loyalty. But any rational person would also expect that this would be tempered by some semblance of reasonableness, an attempt to match financial largesse to the economic and social needs of the electorates. For the Morrison government, this has been thrown out the window.

The amount of money being shovelled by the Coalition into its own electorates and the marginals it hopes to win is staggering. Nationwide, Coalition-held seats received more than $1.9 billion over three years while Labor electorates got just under $530 million. That is a mind-boggling disparity and, when you factor in the amounts being funnelled into particularly wealthy electorates, it is a scandalous misallocation of taxpayer dollars.

Four Labor seats, including Maribyrnong (held by former opposition leader Bill Shorten), each received less than $1 million, while three Liberal seats, including the vulnerable marginal electorate of La Trobe, received more than $15 million each. The seat of Kooyong, held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, was given $5.8 million, and $14 million went to the seat of Aston, held by former education minister Alan Tudge. In Sydney, the seat of Wentworth, which Liberal Party MP Dave Sharma reclaimed from independent Kerryn Phelps in the 2019 election and is one of the smallest and wealthiest in the country, was given $33.5 million in grants.

While the financial partisanship is clear, what is also troubling is how the federal government has actively gone about keeping it out of the public eye. For each grant analysed, the publicly available information lists a recipient town, suburb, postcode and, in some cases, a delivery postcode. Public servants say it is routine to include the name of the recipient electorate in any list of projects, but that crucial piece of information is deleted from the final document to be made public.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham claimed to our journalists a fortnight ago that it was not possible for his department to determine into which electorates flowed billions of dollars of grants overseen by ministers. This is the same party that has, all of a sudden, become a strong advocate for transparency when it comes to funding for a range of independents who are taking on Liberal candidates.

Unfortunately, the same enthusiasm for transparency was not around when it did its best to cover up the shoddiness of its 2019 commuter car park scheme. In a scathing report into the $660 million program, the Auditor-General found that 77 per cent of the projects were in Coalition electorates and most were chosen not by the Department of Infrastructure but by government ministers and signed off by the Prime Minister himself. All governments seek to hide their dirty laundry, but the Morrison government seems particularly allergic to scrutiny – hence its aversion to a robust anti-corruption commission.

At a time when the nation’s debt and deficit are higher than ever, surely the nation deserves better governance than this.

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