I am proud to introduce the Accountability of Grants, Investment Mandates and Use of Public Resources Amendment (End Pork Barrelling) Bill today.


Just for a moment, imagine that we’re coming up to an election. Not that hard to picture! The major parties start making their case to voters – and especially the voters in marginal seats. They promise to spend taxpayer money to build a hospital, a sports park, a new bridge. They promise a $900 million rail line upgrade.


Now imagine you’re a voter. You might not be in a marginal seat. But your community desperately needs better hospitals, roads and train lines, just like the marginal seats. You watch as the major parties commit millions to seats they need to win. They don’t visit your electorate; let alone make any funding announcements. You end up feeling like your community has been ignored year after year. You feel like your vote doesn’t matter.


Members of the major parties in this place may say promises to spend taxpayer money in marginal seats is common practice; a fact of political life. One well known politician has said, and I quote, ‘I don’t think it would be a surprise to anybody that we throw money at seats to keep them’. Another politician has said this practice ‘is a feature of Australian democracy’.


But we cannot accept this as a feature. It’s a flaw in our democracy.


Using public money to target certain voters for political gain – known as pork-barrelling – is at best poor administration and at worst corruption.


Let’s be clear – we’re talking about thousands of grants and billions of dollars every year.


Promises are made for infrastructure in ‘must win’ or ‘gettable’ seats at the expense of projects with equal or more merit and better value, thus wasting public money.


But it’s not just wasting money.


Pork-barrelling undermines public trust in Governments and in politicians who are elected to make decisions on our behalf, in the public interest and for the common good. It undermines trust in our democracy.


It perpetuates a cynicism in the community that giving your vote is about ‘getting stuff’ rather than getting good policy.


According to the Australia Institute, more than 80% of Australians view pork barrelling as a form of corruption. Contrary to what many politicians say, voters don’t like it and they don’t want it.


The problem is perfectly demonstrated through one of the most notorious examples of pork- barrelling – the Community Sport Infrastructure program, known as ‘sports rorts’. Under this $100 million program, the Australian National Audit Office (the ANAO) found, amongst other things, the Minister decided to assess grant applicants separate from Sports Australia, who was responsible for administering the grants. They did not award grants assessed by Sports Australia as the most meritorious.


Let’s be clear.


Pork-barrelling is not just a problem on one side of politics.


Yes, we have nine years’ worth of material from the Coalition about problems with grant programs they delivered.


But I have concerns about the current Labor Government’s administration of the first rounds of the Community Batteries for Household Solar Program and the Mobile Black Spot Program, which were by ‘invitation only’ to deliver election promises.


As we approach the next election, let’s see if this government make the integrity grade as they direct funding and make promises to voters.


In the meantime, it’s blatantly obvious there is a problem, the problem is pork barrelling, and we must create laws to stop it.


My Bill does just this. It increases fairness, accountability, and transparency in spending public money, most commonly via grant programs.


Firstly, the Bill requires all grants programs to have clear and publicly available, merit-based selection criteria and guidelines.


Secondly, the Bill ensures robust reporting to the Parliament – about what grants are awarded, to who, and why. This includes requirements for Ministers to report to Parliament in a timely manner when they have gone against the official advice from Government Departments about who is best-placed to receive a grant.


Third, the Bill creates a new Joint Parliamentary Committee on Grants Administration and Investment Mandates. This Committee will oversee grants administration, including compliance with guidelines.


Fourth, this Bill requires the Minister to report to Parliament about whether or not Investment Mandates are being complied with. These are the ministerial directions for how the billions of dollars in funds –the Housing Australia Future Fund for example – should be invested and distributed.


Mr Speaker, this Bill is not radical.


It does not take away the discretion of Ministers to award grants – something that can be especially important in times of emergencies like floods or fires.


This Bill also does not stop parties making election commitments to spend money if they win government.


But what this Bill does do is set out a simple and practical framework for ensuring that when a Minister makes a ‘captains call’, or when a major party delivers on an election commitment, it’s done so transparently, fairly and responsibly.


I want to thank the Centre for Public Integrity – especially Dr Catherine Williams, Geoffrey Watson SC and Dr Gabrielle Appleby – for working with me on this Bill.


This Bill has the support from some of the most experienced, respected legal minds in this country.


So I now call on all members of this place – from all political parties – to back me in these reforms. Don’t turn a blind eye to my efforts to end pork-barrelling just because it’s something everyone does. We – as elected members to this place – should be so much better than that.


The Government will tell you they’re fixing the problem – they intend to implement recent recommendations on grants administration by the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit.


But these recommendations do not go nearly far enough. They only strengthen guidelines, not legislation, and they don’t give Parliament the oversight powers it needs.


Their recommendations lack teeth.


It’s not going to be members of the major parties that drive reform to end pork-barrelling. That’s why, as an Independent, I am coming forward with this solution to clean up this practice.


I will shortly meet with the Minister for Finance, Senator Gallagher, who introduced her own Bill when in opposition which would require additional reporting requirements on Ministers awarding grants, just like my Bill.


I hope to work closely with her so we can achieve the reforms set out in my Bill together.


The latest global corruption rankings – the Corruption Perceptions Index – ranks Australia at 14th place in the world. Even after we have legislated the National Anti Corruption Commission and started reforming whistleblower protections, Australia is still in the same place we were a year ago, and still woefully behind where we were just a decade ago.


We are at a crossroads with re-instating the Australian public’s trust in Government and in Parliament.


We must listen to the insistent call of the Australian public to do better – to end jobs for mates, to put truth back in political advertising, to get dirty money out of politics and to shine a light on who has access to the halls of Parliament.


And we must end pork barrelling. It is another critical pillar to restoring public trust in government, and in democracy.

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