The shameless pork-barrellers have normalised political graft
There is nothing like the prospect of an election to encourage politicians to throw out old standards about the handling of public money. And there is nothing like a tough fight for a prize seat to encourage them to shrug their shoulders at old ideas about honour and integrity.
Both forces have been at work this week in the effort to persuade Gladys Berejiklian to run for the federal seat of Warringah, restore the Liberals to their former political jewel on Sydney’s northern beaches and help keep the party in power in Canberra.
But the twin forces are about much more than the former NSW premier and the intense effort by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to recruit her to his side when she is under investigation by the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. They are also about the normalisation of political graft and the casual handling of billions of dollars in public funds, just when next week’s budget update will confirm the country’s record deficits.
Berejiklian will not be running. The brief flirtation with the idea ended when the risks were weighed up with the rewards. She is still waiting to see the submissions from counsel assisting the commission, due by December 20, and has to assume ICAC would continue its inquiries well into next year.
In other words, the commission could torpedo her campaign at any time by making a finding about her decisions to award grants that helped her former state Liberal colleague, Daryl Maguire, at a time they were in a personal relationship that she did not disclose.
Berejiklian may be cleared when the dust settles on this inquiry. Yet the concerns about a conflict of interest are real. Her office had already been rebuked for breaking the law when it shredded documents relating to the $250 million Stronger Communities scheme.
It is telling that this was not enough to make Morrison or his close colleagues think twice. Some Liberals thought it was madness to run Berejiklian in Warringah against independent Zali Steggall when it would magnify arguments about integrity in politics, but they were outnumbered.
Probity concerns? The federal government waves them away. And it hopes voters will do the same.
This is the normalisation of what used to be dismissed as “pork barrelling” but is now the strategic spending of public funds in the interest of political leaders and their parties. Yes, a community can benefit from a new local pool. But the political benefit decides where it goes.
And the scale has changed. The $250 million state scheme is dwarfed by similar federal funds. Morrison prepared for the last election by stashing $5 billion in a series of war chests in the April 2019 budget, such as the urban congestion fund, the safer communities fund and a plan to pay for sporting facilities.
The spending now flows on an industrial scale. Labor invented the whiteboard method of handing out cash. The Auditor-General rebuked the Howard government for favouring its own MPs with the $410 million regional partnerships scheme almost two decades ago. Yet the Morrison government spends 10 times that much – before anyone can count the new schemes in the campaign to come.
The result has been the $101 million sports rorts scandal, the revelations of ministerial intervention in the $31 million safer communities fund and the audit showing how politicians made decisions about a $660 million car park fundwithout waiting for projects to be assessed.
Politicians are more brazen these days about their spending. John Barilaro, the former NSW Nationals leader and deputy premier, boasted of being called “Pork Barilaro” and his federal counterparts argue they are only trying to make life easier for Australians.
Morrison went much further and got surprisingly little criticism for it. He dismissed the inquiry into Berejiklian as “shameful” and “disgraceful” and spoke as if it was merely about her relationship with Maguire rather than the decisions she made as premier.
The ICAC commissioners chose to stay silent. The Law Council called for “moderation” in debate about the “kangaroo court” claim about ICAC without naming Morrison as the author of the claim. It was a very gentle response to inflammatory remarks about an independent integrity commission.
More than eight years have passed since the Coalition came to power with a claim to end wasteful spending, halt discretionary grants by ministers and restore integrity to public spending. Now it treats investigations into public spending with disdain – even contempt.
Things have changed since the Coalition complained about the “reckless” waste of a $2 million television tender, $6.8 million in staff payouts and Kevin Rudd’s $1.2 million travel bill – just three of the top 10 items it used to illustrate Labor waste at the 2013 election.
Political leaders will always resort to drastic measures to stay in power. Under threat in 2019, Morrison and his cabinet ministers unleashed enormous amounts of cash to save their skins. It worked. So they will probably try it again.
Would Labor leader Anthony Albanese do any better? He may complain about the naked play for votes but will not want to pick fights with anyone who has been promised money. The long-term trend is towards bigger programs where political advantage drives the outcome.
Next week’s budget update will highlight the cost. The government did what was needed during the pandemic, especially with JobKeeper and other help for workers, and deserves its share of the credit for Australia’s relative success in the pandemic.
But the Coalition began loosening some of its budget rules before the coronavirus arrived, especially with generous tax cuts and the billions it spent at the last election. Sooner or later, and most likely in a different government, some restraint will have to return.
Perhaps probity will come back into fashion, too. The temptation will always be to bribe like you’re running a banana republic. It is an easy way to become one.