Today I draw attention to a core role of government: spending taxpayer money. I’m talking about everything from small community grant programs of a few thousand dollars to investment funds worth billions. This money can help small volunteer groups like food shares, footy clubs and first-aid trainers. It can help them to upgrade their facilities and equipment, or it could go to larger, much-needed projects like building new homes for low-income families. But, too often, where the money goes is decided not on where the need is most but on where the votes are most valuable. I’m talking about sports rorts, car park rorts and hospital rorts; I’m talking about pork barrelling.
Under the previous government’s commuter car park program, 75 per cent of the projects announced were in coalition seats—with no competitive process. In its assessment of the program, the Audit Office found the approach to identifying and selecting projects was ‘not designed to be open or transparent’. Projects were not selected on merit. This means the Audit Office found it’s not about the evidence; it’s about the polling. It’s about marginal seats and about who has access to a minister. Under the community sport infrastructure program—otherwise known as sports rorts—decisions were not made based on the recommendations from the department, where projects were rated against assessment criteria. Instead, it was the infamous colour coded spreadsheet that showed which electorate each project was in and the margin by which it was held.
Now, while these examples are some of the most egregious, we know that making funding decisions based on marginal seats is not a practice confined to the coalition. The first round of the Mobile Black Spot Program delivered under this government was only open by invitation—and only to electorates that had been promised new towers during last year’s election campaign. Again, three-quarters of the towers were in Labor seats, and in New South Wales that’s 100 per cent. This matter is already under investigation by the Audit Office, after a referral from the shadow minister for communications—a referral which I support.
As taxpayers, is it too much to hope that our taxes are spent in the public interest and based on evidence, on a cost-benefit analysis or on where the need is greatest? No. But, too often, funding goes where the need for votes is greatest. It’s not fair, it’s not right. It’s terrible governance, and voters agree with me. A poll released only last month by the Australia Institute found that 81 per cent of those surveyed considered it corrupt conduct to allocate public money to projects in marginal seats in order to win votes. I want to do something about it. In June, the Joint Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Audit report into the administration of government grants made six recommendations for reform—but they did not go anywhere near far enough. The recommendations do not guarantee that this behaviour change will change.
Today, I’m calling on the government to introduce legislation to ensure public money is not misused and is not wasted.
This legislation must set out clear requirements to publish Commonwealth grant guidelines. It sounds so obvious, but even this bare minimum is not already legislated. Any reform must include legislated, robust, mandatory and timely public reporting requirements about grants programs. If a minister makes a decision to give money against departmental advice, they should have to stand up in this place and tell us why. We need parliamentary oversight locked in with legislation. These decisions shouldn’t be allowed to fly under the radar. We shouldn’t have to wait for an audit report or a media investigation to uncover pork-barrelling.
Now this is not about removing ministerial discretion; it’s about legislated transparency and accountability when that discretion is used, and new laws must provide a framework for parliamentary oversight of grants by setting up a joint committee on grants administration. This is my message to the government: get on and make this law. I’d love to work with you on it, but, if you don’t choose to do that, I’ll get on and do it anyway. I’ve done it before and succeeded when I fought hard alongside people from across the political spectrum—alongside people like the member for Bass—to establish a robust national anticorruption commission and bring it to life. This is important, this is urgent and the Australian public demand this of us because, before we know it, we will be back in election season—prime-time pork season. How politicians spend taxpayer money must be reformed if we are to restore trust in politics.