Do political rorts deliver extra votes at elections?
Politicians seem to think so, judging by the number and frequency of pork-barrelling scandals involving the misuse of public spending. Indeed, according to the former NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, such activity is normal. As she said last year, “all governments and all oppositions make commitments to the community in order to curry favour”.
But do the electoral benefits outweigh the controversy and the risk to political careers? Nationals senator Bridget Mackenzie (temporarily) lost her ministerial position over events surrounding the 2018-19 sports rorts scandal. The Labor minister Ros Kelly suffered a similar fate in the “whiteboard” sports grants controversy in 1994.
Given the effort politicians and their advisers commit to directing public funds to marginal electorates, an observer would think the electoral returns would be substantial.
New research by myself and federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh, published in the journal Political Studies, casts doubt on this assumption.
Why do politicians pork-barrel?
The international research on pork-barrel politics suggests politicians are attracted to it for two reasons. One is to win over swinging voters, who might be impressed by a candidate’s ability to garner resources for his or her electorate. The other is to reward supporters and to “deliver” for the party’s voter base.
Australia’s political institutions are ideally suited to pork-barrelling. Party politics are highly disciplined, and elections almost always produce a clear winner.
The three-year federal electoral cycle provides multiple opportunities for pork barrelling, while compulsory voting means all voters are potentially open to influence. And while there is independent oversight over government expenditure, there are few formal constraints on governments that decide to allocate funding based on partisan considerations.
The sports grants scandal
In 2018, the Coalition government set aside A$100 million to upgrade sporting facilities around Australia, with the allocation of grants overseen by the Australian Sports Commission (Sport Australia).
However, as the Australian National Audit Office’s 2020 report made clear, a parallel evaluation of the grants was also conducted by the sports minister’s office. This evaluation identified “marginal electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates not held by the Coalition that were to be targeted in the 2019 election”.
Our interest in examining the impact of the 2018-19 sports grants on voters stemmed from the fact that we know which electorates received grants and – thanks to a spreadsheet leaked to the ABC – which grants were awarded on merit and which were likely to have been awarded on political considerations. We estimate that of the almost 700 grants that were funded, just over half were awarded based on politics rather than need.
By matching the grants to each electorate, and taking into account such factors as incumbency and the socioeconomic status of the electorate, we could make two estimates. First, we wanted to know the extent to which grants were directed to marginal electorates. And second, we wanted to know if the impact of grants – both merit-based and politics-based – had any influence on the vote in the 2019 election.
What we found
On the first question, the extent of bias, we found grants were significantly more likely to be directed to seats held by the Coalition, with National-held seats being particular beneficiaries. This supports both the audit office’s report and is also in line with other research on previous scandals, both Coalition and Labor. It confirms that an incentive was to attract swinging voters as well as to deliver for the party’s core voters.
On the second question, and contrary in our expectations, the allocation of grants had no significant effect on the Coalition’s vote. This held both for the number of grants that were allocated to each electorate, as well as to the dollar amount of those grants.
Why does pork barrelling fail to deliver votes?
This unexpected finding then led us to consider why voters fail to be swayed by the lavish allocation of government funds. We have two – necessarily speculative – explanations.
The first is the low standing of politicians. The Australian Election Study survey shows trust in politicians is at an all-time low. In the 2019 study, three quarters of the respondents thought “people in government look after themselves”. This is the highest figure ever recorded. Voters may therefore simply regard pork-barrelling as normal.
The second explanation is politicians over-estimate the effect of pork-barrelling. To test this we conducted a straw poll of 14 House of Representative members who were asked what the impact of the vote would be if half a million dollars was spent on their electorate. Only two thought it would have no effect. Of the remainder, about half thought it would bring an additional 1% of the vote or more.
In short, pork-barrelling, at least in the case of the sports grants, does not work. Politicians clearly believe otherwise.
But what pork-barrelling almost certainly does do is to further erode the public’s confidence and trust in elected politicians. With trust and integrity likely to be major issues for voters at the 2022 election, how the parties approach these issues will have a major impact on the outcome.