Australian politics

More Coalition corruption uncovered, but are we dealing with the basic problem of discretionary grants?

By now it is hardly newsworthy when the Australian National Audit Office uncovers evidence of rorts in discretionary funding by the now-departed Coalition government.

The most recent report – Award of Funding under the Building Better Regions Fund – found that 65 percent of projects approved in this $1.15 billion expenditure “were not those assessed as being the most meritorious in the departmental assessment process”. That’s an auditor’s litotes that translates into “rorts” – National Party rorts in this case.

The report makes sensible recommendations for better administration of discretionary grants, basically requiring more explanation from ministers when they go against advice that public servants have prepared in line with a program’s published assessment criteria. The Department of Finance has “noted” these recommendations.

The ANAO makes findings on the administration of programs, but it generally avoids commenting on the policies on which programs are based.

Even for those projects that had merit on cost-benefit grounds, and that met economic criteria for public funding rather than private or community funding, one may ask why, in our federation, the Commonwealth has been involved in projects with benefits confined to specific regions.

A bicycle track, a local mental health facility, an art project, a tourism information centre, may all be worthy projects, but surely these should be the domain of state or local governments. The Commonwealth could have handed that $1.15 billion to the states, with firm criteria directing that it be spent in regions with identified needs or disadvantage.

If our newly-elected government is serious about integrity in government it should restrict its regional interventions to projects that have national significance – roads and railroads connecting states, international ports and airports, electricity transmission lines that connect up the National Electricity Market – and leave the rest to other governments. That would put decision-making back closer to where there are needs, and save the government the costly political embarrassment of being caught pork-barrelling by our to be established corruption and integrity commission.

The season’s first Newspoll – fears about a Labor government vanquished

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on the first Newspoll for the year. At 56:44 two-party preference, it’s a good one for Labor, up from the election result of 52:48. Similarly for Albanese’s personal approval rating: it is a net 35 percent, up from 15 percent in the final pre-election Newspoll.

It looks like we will have another three years of emphasis on the two-party outcome, even though our parliament is becoming more a multi-party arrangement.

But the Newspoll also has information on primary support. Since the election Labor’s primary support is up 4 percent and the Coalition’s is down 3 percent. Support for the Greens is steady at 12 percent, support for One Nation is up a little, and the UAP seems to be on the path to extinction. Will Clive Palmer have another go in 2025?

Adrian Beaumont has a Conversation article about these findings, calling them honeymoon ratings, but in view of the huge post-election jump for Labor and for Albanese, the “honeymoon” may be the wrong metaphor for what happens with newly-elected governments. Love doesn’t normally suddenly blossom during the honeymoon, or when the newlyweds sit down and look at the tough reality of the household budget. Rather, it seems to be more about people learning that the new government isn’t quite as scary as the previous government and the Murdoch press had made out. It’s looking like a typical conservative, risk-averse Australian government.

The media – its role in the political debate

Albanese has said that he wants to change the way politics is done.

If we are to have more informed public engagement with public policy, with less lying, less obfuscation, less sophistry, less cattiness, fewer ad-hominem attacks, the media as well as politicians have to play a part, explains Denis Muller of the University of Melbourne, writing in The Conversation: Albanese wants to change the way politics is done. This means the way politics is reported will have to change too.

He describes the disgraceful behaviour of people in the media pack during the May election campaign, and efforts by the Murdoch media to represent Labor in the worst possible light.

He also reminds us that although social media has blossomed, television news is still the most general source for Australian news consumers, with 66 percent saying they watch TV news. He notes that television news is the “most formulaic of all professional mass media”, with “little scope for reflecting anything except the most superficial elements of a story”. We see it nightly – the anecdote that may or not be related to the issue at hand, a few predictable and carefully-chosen words by a politician, and a background clip that has been dug out of the library by someone without the faintest idea of the issue.

It is not just social media that is responsible for dumbing-down public debate.