‘We throw money at seats to keep them’.
During Gladys Berejiklian’s final day of providing testimony before the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, the practice of ‘pork barrelling’ was front and centre.
ICAC is investigating whether the former premier of our state breached the ministerial code of conduct by failing to declare her relationship with disgraced Former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, at the same time as facilitating the approval of significant multi-million dollar grants to Maguire’s electorate of Wagga Wagga.
In her no-nonsense, unrepentant way, Ms Berejiklian told the inquiry that yes, she had supported grants worth millions of dollars for the Riverina Conservatorium of Music and the Australian Clay Target Association, even against departmental advice, because “we throw money at seats to keep them.”
A strategy to win votes
The money was not committed to the projects in Wagga Wagga to favour Mr Mcguire, Ms Berejiklian told ICAC investigators, it was intended to bolster the Liberal Party’s chances of winning an upcoming by-election.
“At the end of the day,” Ms Berjiklian said, “whether we like it or not, that’s democracy.”
It’s the same stance she has taken since the grants probe this time last year by a Public Accountability Committee inquiry, led by NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge and committee member Labor MLC John Graham who had tracked down documents that were thought to have been shredded and deleted by the Premier’s office. The Accountability Committee inquiry found $141 million in grant money was allocated to Coalition-held seats in the lead up to the last election.
Not ethical and certainly not democratic
Pork Barrelling is something that the New South Wales public now seems resigned to — that a Government will use taxpayer money, funnelled through a ‘grants programme’ to boost it’s chances of staying elected.
The problem is, although it’s unethical, it is not illegal.
But it is certainly not ‘democratic’ by any means.
It is an abuse of government power and an abuse of the trust that voters place in government to make decisions for the betterment of our neighbourhoods and communities, and to progress society as a whole.
How ‘effective’ pork barrelling is in terms of retaining or winning seats is not entirely clear, but the practice certainly provides an unfair advantage, or the perception of one, to the incumbent political party at election time, which certainly goes against the principles of a ‘fair’ electoral process.
Hundreds of well-deserving community-based organisations apply for NSW grants every year, believing the process is impartial.
Many miss out on funding because politicians decide to apply grant money where they think they will be able to influence voters, rather than where it is most needed.
Which is also disappointing, because many of these organisations are doing a fantastic job of alleviating or solving social problems at a grass-roots level.
Pork barrelling is rife in Australian politics — it needs to stop
There is some hope though, that as an outcome of the ICAC inquiry, there may be an opportunity to tighten processes and procedures, to provide more transparency and accountability mechanisms for how grant funds are allocated, to stop pork barrelling within New South Wales.
At Federal level, pork barrelling is also considered a normal political practice. Last year, when the Sports Rorts scandal broke, the government was condemned for directing the vast majority of the $100m Community Sports Infrastructure grants program into marginal or targeted electorates, usually against the advice of Sport Australia.
At the time, a senate inquiry heard that almost half, 43% of projects which were awarded grants in the lead up to the 2019 federal election were not eligible for the money.
Peter Dutton was also accused of pork barrelling earlier this year, hand selecting 53 projects from a list eligible for grants from the Safer Communities Fund, including two from his own electorate.
Geoffrey Watson, Senior Counsel, a former barrister assisting ICAC publicly stated last week, we need to stop calling the practice ‘pork barrelling’ and call it what it really is: misuse of public money.
“It’s just wrong. I just don’t understand why we excuse this conduct,” Geoffrey Watson told the media… “it’s OK because everyone does it’, that would soon lead to the most appalling conduct. You just slide to the lowest denominator.”