My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for 9 April 2019

by ray goodlass

Our federal government blatantly buying votes

This week I had intended to devote my column to analysing last week’s federal budget, which was clearly a vote buying exercise that I hope didn’t fool too many people. There is a need to address a couple of contextual points will leave no space for Mr Frydenberg’s actual accounting trickery.

The first point involves the Prime Minister’s timing, and the second is commentary on what are known as pork-barreling, cash splashes and sweeteners.

The timing is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate certain aspects of our electoral schedule to suit the Liberal/Nationals coalition government, given that the election needs to be held in May. As the budget is normally brought down in that month Messrs Morrison and Frydenberg simply brought the budget forward to April, and given that they have plenty of cash to splash around their timing allows them to channel it to where they hope it will win vulnerable seats they are in danger of losing.

In other words, it’s more of a campaign launch for the Liberal/Nationals coalition rather than an economic blueprint for the future.

Which brings me nicely to pork-barreling, cash splashes and sweeteners, something at which Labor is as adept as the Coalition. Essentially, they are all the same thing, using government spending to buy votes in vulnerable areas where its majority is very small, though there are some differences between the three categories.

Pork-barreling is buying votes by targeting one specific electorate with promises of massive spending on infrastructure. We saw that happening in spades at last year’s Wagga by-election as the Liberal and Labor parties tried to outdo each other by promising us very expensive new infrastructure. A $10 million multi-story car park for Wagga Base Hospital was the attention-grabbing promise. However, and this is the problem with pork-barreling, spending that much money on public services such as health and education would almost certainly have been in the better long-term interests of Wagga residents – or of more deserving people somewhere else, for that matter.

For, of course, pork-barreling to buy votes in one electorate means other people miss out, and their needs might be much more important.

Cash splashes are similar, but usually aren’t focussed on a specific electorate but rather a particular demographic, usually one with a real or perceived complaint. The cash handouts by the coalition government to help pensioners and others pay their power bills is an example. They make good headlines but of course they are one-offs and don’t solve in any way at all the ongoing problem – a problem the government has created, though of course it will never admit that.

Sweeteners are very similar to cash splashes, though are usually broader in appeal and less about a particular demographic with a real grouch, and more about simply making the government look good, such as some extra money being spent on, for example, education or health. Such sweeteners always look good superficially but of course they don’t disguise the fact that they government created the problem in the first place through ongoing chronic underfunding, and they don’t do anything to solve the ongoing problem.

The most blatant sweetener in this budget is probably the tax cuts, conveniently brought forward from 2022. Even these are a smoke and mirror exercise as the lowest income earners will receive cents rather than tens or hundreds of dollars.

But all these arguments against pork-barreling, cash splashes and sweeteners are dwarfed by their broader ethical questions. As Peter Hartcher wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The third-world backwardness of the politician’s pork-barrel is an abuse of public trust, a waste of money and a form of corruption”. It certainly is.

What we need instead is an independent agency that allocates money to major projects on a needs basis, not political favouritism and marginal seat manipulation. Perhaps Infrastructure Australia, now just an advisory body that is often ignored can be reconstituted as an independent agency that allocates funds on a genuine needs basis.

The level of spending, and where it is allocated, can’t be left to the government in power because, in their desperation to retain office, major party politicians simply can’t restrain their impulse to buy votes.