On Monday, a Senate hearing produced even more overwhelming evidence on the “bad parking lots” affair.
The Australian National Audit Office told a parliamentary committee that a list of the top 20 fringe electorates guided the distribution of a $ 389 million parking lot construction fund during the 2019 election campaign.
Members of the Sitting Coalition were invited to propose projects for funding. In some cases, funds were allocated to voters when a project had not yet been identified. An adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office was involved in the allocation of the funds – the same adviser implicated in the “sports rorts” incident.
Earlier this month, the Court of Auditors issued a scathing criticism report, finding that 77% of the selected commuter parking sites were in coalition electorates, rather than in areas of real need with congestion issues. None of the 47 project sites selected for funding commitment were proposed by the infrastructure department.
So why do these rorts keep happening? What mechanisms are in place to try to stop them? And what other protections do we need?
Why do rorts continue to occur?
The pig barrel involves funneling public funds to government electorates for political purposes, rather than an appropriate allocation based on merit.
In recent years we have been inundated with scandals related to pork barrels. This includes the ‘sports rorts’ scandal that led to Bridget McKenzie’s resignation from cabinet last year, and the biased cast of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian Stronger Communities Fund.
Australia has a single-member parliamentary system, which makes it more vulnerable to pig rolls than multi-member electorates like Norway or Spain. The belief is that politicians who “bring the bacon home” for their constituents are electorally rewarded for doing so.
This means that the central cabinet is encouraged to strategically distribute the benefits to marginal electorates in order to increase the chances of electoral success. There is also an incentive to skew the distribution of funds in favor of the ruling party.
In short, crime scandals continue to occur because governments believe that funneling money to marginal and government electorates will allow them to win elections.
What are the terms of accountability for grants?
At the federal level, we have developed financial management legislation which provides a framework for the granting rules. the Commonwealth Grant Rules provide a detailed set of guidelines for ministers and government officials to follow on the grant application and selection processes.
Read more: Another day, another rorts scandal – this time with the parking lots. How can we fix the system?
However, there are significant loopholes in the rules. For example, the “car park“The scandal is not covered by these rules because it implies that the money goes through the States.
In addition, there are no penalties for non-compliance with the rules. Thus, ministers and government officials can break the rules without repercussions.
Who monitors the grants?
The Auditor General is the main actor investigating the federal grant administration. The Auditor General has significant enforcement powers and is independent from government. Although the Auditor General does not have the power to change government practices, the publicity of his reports can encourage government agencies to respond positively and productively.
In Australia, parliaments have an important constitutional role as oversight of government activities.
Parliamentary committees have become the main form of government oversight in recent years. They are set up to investigate specific policy issues or to assess government performance.
Parliamentary committees are normally responsible for investigating issues by taking submissions, hearing testimony and reporting their findings to parliament. They have been very effective in identifying and investigating issues related to government crimes.
What destination now?
To fix the system, we need to reform the rules for awarding grants and close the loopholes. We also need to impose penalties for breaking the rules.
Read more: The “sports rorts” case shows the need for a real federal ICAC – with teeth
It is imperative that our grant administration system be reformed to ensure that taxpayer funds are protected from government abuse. If the ministerial discretion available in grant processes is misused, it can lead to political patronage and corruption.
Ministers, as our elected representatives, are the guardians of the public trust. In a well-functioning democracy, it is important that there is probity, transparency and accountability in the use of public funds.