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Buying Votes:  Parliamentary Systems and Pork Barrel Politics

  by Dr. David Denemark

This article first appeared in the November-December 1998 (vol 70 No. 6) issue of the Australian Quartely (AQ).

Claims that the Coalition Government’s 1998 $1.2 billion Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) environmental fund is being distributed overwhelmingly amongst seats controlled by Coalition MPs should come as no surprise.  Parliamentary systems like Australia’s ask the fox to guard the hen house by combining governmental executive power with party interests.  While parliamentary power and its system of ministerial responsibility has many desirable aspects, it also inherently tempts the party in government – whether Coalition or Labor – to use taxpayer-funded programs for their own electoral advantage.  Indeed, Labor’s claims in recent months that the Howard Government has abused the public trust closely echo those made about the Labor Government by the conservative Opposition during the 1993-94 Sports Rorts Affair. 

It would be easy with each new scandal merely to look for individual scapegoats and to call for the minister responsible to resign.  But, it is worth considering the role played by the governmental system itself, which gives the ministerial elite powerful incentives and numerous opportunities to use public money for their own party’s electoral gain, by placing the lion’s share into electoral divisions controlled by their own party.  It is a temptation not likely to be resisted as long as a government’s fate at the next election rests on the electoral outcome in a handful of seats. 

The importance of the parliamentary system in promoting party-based pork barrel politics is most evident when one compares the patterns of Australian local grant distribution with those of a non-parliamentary system, such as the USA. America’s governmental system promotes an individually-focused pattern of pork barrel distribution which is sharply different from that occurring within Australia’s party-based parliament. 

The US governmental system is based on the rigid separation of executive from legislative power, weak and fragmented parties, and a central role for a committee system in Congress which rests on individual seniority.  The result is that the electoral fortunes of individuals in America’s House of Representatives, especially in an era of anti-party voter sentiment, depend not on their party links but rather on their ability to build personal bases of voter support back home in their local districts. 

America’s patterns of pork barrel distribution reflect these larger influences.  As numerous studies have shown, funds and projects go to powerful individuals in safe seats – those with long-term tenure in office and, thus, influence in Congressional committees.  In short, patterns of American pork barrel distribution reflect the structure of its governmental system:  non-party-based, individualistic, and dominated by power-brokers in safe seats. 

The Australian parliamentary system, in contrast, revolves around party government which promotes the importance of party-oriented votes.  The result, unlike in America where the typical individual candidate stands in isolation from the party, is a powerful incentive for the ministerial elite to use their discretionary powers over local grants or programs to place the lion’s share of such funds into electoral districts controlled by their own party. 

The importance of the parliamentary system in promoting party-based pork barrel politics is evident, if in two distinct forms, when one examines the patterns of Australian local grant distribution by the Labor Government in 1993 and the Coalition Government in 1998.  As we will see, Labor allocated local community sports grants primarily to key Labor-held marginal seats, while the Coalition has apportioned Natural Heritage Trust funds into very safe seats, especially those held by National Party ministers.  Both patterns, though motivated by different strategic agendas, are consistent with parties in government using public funds to maximise their own electoral advantage. 

1993 Local Community Sports Grants 

In closely drawn elections, one way for a party in government to maximise the electoral impact of its discretionary funds is to place them into the marginal seats of their party colleagues.  This is the case even though most voters complete their ballots with the desired party, not local candidate, foremost in their mind.  In these seats, even small gains in the vote tally may make the difference and allow the party as a whole to retain governmental power. 

An examination of the Labor Government’s distribution of approximately $30 million of sports grants in the weeks preceding the 1993 federal election points to patterns which are consistent with this marginal seats strategy.  These grants were intended to support local area projects to improve or establish sporting facilities or programs.  While Labor MPs accounted for only 54% of the Members of the House of Representatives in 1993, Figure 1 illustrates that electoral districts controlled by ALP incumbents nonetheless received 67% of the total funds awarded.  This party bias also translated into larger average grants, with seats controlled by ALP incumbents garnering average grants of roughly $250,000 compared with the approximately $140,000 going to non-ALP seats. 
Figure 1
Sum of 1993 Sports Grants in ALP and Non-ALP Seats
Source: Attachment C, Auditor-General's Report no. 9, 1994. "Efficiency Audit, Community Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities Program."

More importantly, 1993 grants funds went disproportionately to marginal seats – larger and larger averages for grants going to those strategically vital seats with small pre-election margins.  Except for two “spikes” in very safe seats, the patterns in Figure 2 show a clear cut relationship between seat marginality and receipt of grant money – especially for seats held by ALP incumbents.  The apportioning of substantial amounts of money into those electorally secure seats may be explained by two distinct strategies, one in Opposition seats, the other in the ALP’s own incumbent-held seats.  On the one hand, governments facing the likelihood of public criticism for partisan bias in its funding decisions might well be motivated to place substantial amounts of funds into the Opposition’s safest seats.  This would allow the government to be able to point to appreciable sums of money having been allocated to their electoral opponents, while at the same time minimising the possibility that those funds would have a deciding impact on the seats’ electoral outcomes. 
Figure 2
Mean 1993 Sports Grants in ALP and Non-ALP Seats by Marginality of Seats 
Source: Attachment C, Auditor-General's Report no. 9, 1994. "Efficiency Audit, Community Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities Program."

  Cabinet members, despite having an average winning margin of 10.5% in their electoral districts compared with 7.0% for their backbench counterparts nonetheless received larger grants (roughly $280,000 compared with $246,000 for non-cabinet ALP incumbents).  And yet, as Figure 3 illustrates, their funds too, as with the party’s overall, went disproportionately into marginal cabinet seats.  Clearly, then, the attempt to retain control of marginal seats figured centrally in the apportioning of 1993 sports grants. 

On the other hand, however, the Labor Government’s apportioning of larger sums of grants to safe Labor seats may well reflect cabinet-members using their ministerial influence to divert a portion of available distributive benefits to their own, typically safe – but occasionally marginal – electoral divisions.  Indeed, a closer look at the safe seat “spike” in Figure 2 shows that of the total $1,428,300 in 1993 grants apportioned to seats with pre-election margins between 17.5% and 20% $480,300 went to non-ALP seats, while all of the remaining $948,000 went to ALP cabinet members’ seats.  Within this category of safe seats no grant funds whatsoever went to ALP backbenchers.  Cabinet members, then, appear to attract large portions of pork barrel funds despite holding seats which, by-and-large, are tactically insignificant to the party’s overall electoral fortunes. 
Figure 3 
Mean 1993 Sports Grants in ALP Cabinet Members' and ALP Non-Cabinet Members' Seats, by Seat marginality 
Source: Attachment C, Auditor-General's Report no. 9, 1994. "Efficiency Audit, Community Cultural, Recreational and Sporting Facilities Program."

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