Rorts, favouritism and political self-interest are long-standing and often blatant in Australian politics, as they are in many other political systems. We hardly bat an eyelid over some of them because they are so common. The question is not whether they exist but whether abuses of the system are more prevalent under some governments than others. When challenged, those holding office vary their defence between saying that the system is perfectly fair and democratic and saying that, anyway, the other mob are just as bad when they hold office. Broadly speaking that's how the debate ebbed and flowed during the sports rorts affair which ultimately cost Bridget McKenzie her job. Labor had its own notorious sports rorts affair under the guise of Ros Kelly's whiteboard.
Since then the debate has broadened and now Labor leader Anthony Albanese has written to the Auditor-General asking for an investigation into the Urban Congestion Fund, alleging that the bulk of the $4 billion fund went either to Coalition seats or marginal Labor seats the Coalition hoped to win at last year's election.
Little connection has been made in commentary to the simultaneous news that the ACT Labor government has made little progress in having its $115 million housing debt waived to match the waiving of the similar Tasmanian Liberal government's housing debt in a deal last September.
The current sports rort had a special character compared to other political "deals". The community dismay with this rort was magnified because expectations of a merit-based process had raised hopes that the process would be even-handed and fair. Hundreds of small communities and volunteer sporting clubs around Australia not only expected a fair deal but had spent time and effort in making applications under the scheme. Not only were many "dudded" when the distribution became political, but they had also been led up the garden path. That dangerous combination of reasonable expectations and corrupted outcomes is not always present in other rorts, some of which haven't involved applications.
Favouritism and unfairness are built into the political system in several ways. The system consequently produces an uneven playing field which at any time is hard to counter.
Any parliamentary system produces a government, an opposition and independent MPs. Under this system government MPs have the inside running through better access to ministers. They trade on this fact in election campaign slogans, such as "Return me to office and give yourselves an MP inside the government". Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Opposition MPs and candidates can at least claim during election campaigns that they might form a government, but independents must rely on the force of their arguments and their personalities as well as the active support of their communities. Recently the Nationals' new deputy leader David Littleproud boasted that the Nationals "cut the cheques" inside the Coalition government, whereas rural minor parties and independents did not.
A cross-cutting twist to this system, which modifies the above government/opposition framework, is introduced by the characterisation of electorates as "safe" or "marginal". Marginal seats generally win more resources, as some Labor marginals did in the sports rorts distribution in the hope they would swing towards the Liberals. Where possible, Coalition candidates in these seats, like Georgina Downer in Mayo, were allowed to announce the grant. Safe seats, on the other hand, can be forgotten. Worst of all is to be in a safe opposition seat. As the three ACT House of Representatives seats are safe Labor their voters are in a particularly precarious position, whichever major party wins government.
Luck comes into it for communities, especially through closely contested byelections when the parliamentary balance is tight.
Single-member electorates are part of the problem as they divide the electorate into small geographical areas perfect for rorts. Proportional representation systems are better but don't solve the problem entirely. In the ACT, multi-member electorates make geographical rorting less common but some electorates can still be favoured over others.
At the Commonwealth level, whole states can be favoured. Examples include not just Tasmania's housing debt relief but also South Australia's submarine program, whose location in that state is widely regarded as a rort engineered to save Coalition seats.
We can put up with rorts at the margins from time to time, but when it becomes systemic we are all the losers.
The Senate can also produces ideal circumstances for rorts, otherwise known as cross-trading deals, catering for balance of power holders, whether they are independents or minor parties. Tasmanian Brian Harradine and South Australian Nick Xenophon were masters of this and now Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania) and Pauline Hanson (Queensland) are following in their footsteps.
There is a long history, always applauded by the beneficiaries, of trade-offs between sweeteners for particular states and the passage of legislation. These sweeteners, ideological as well as financial, are no more defensible than rorts favouring some electorates over others.
Trust in our system has been eroded because it depends on resource allocation decisions being non-partisan and evidence based. The place of the non-partisan public service in making such decisions, or advising ministers, helps build such trust. That too is in jeopardy.
Ultimately community trust depends on trust in those in charge of our parliamentary system. When it is driven instead by favouritism, self-interest and partisan politics then trust declines to record low levels.
We can put up with rorts at the margins from time to time, but when it becomes systemic we are all the losers. The erosion of ethical standards of fairness and equal treatment corrodes the whole system.
It is not enough to hope that balance will be restored when "my mob" gets into office. That is no way to run a country or a state. Impartiality must always prevail.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.