In all the revelations to tumble out of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption in the last two days of hearings, one barely raised an eyebrow.

With unnerving nonchalance, Gladys Berejiklian spoke plainly of directing tens of millions of dollars to Wagga Wagga for political gain.

Of course she had supported grants going to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music and the Australian Clay Target Association, the former NSW premier explained, even against departmental advice.

There were seats to be won. Voters to claw back.

“I don’t think it would be a surprise to anybody that we throw money at seats to keep them,” she said.

The evidence barely raised a ripple.

Indeed, it appeared to be used by Berejiklian as a kind of protective shield from the commission’s attempts to establish whether she gave Daryl Maguire, her then secret boyfriend, favourable treatment on projects he had been pushing for in his electorate.

The money was not doled out to favour Maguire, Berejiklian told the commission.

Not at all. It favoured a region where the Liberal party’s fortunes had suffered dramatically as a byelection loomed.

“At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, that’s democracy,” she said.

Have we grown so conditioned to such brazen political conduct – albeit entirely legal – that it is now accepted as a form of defence?

And what does our collective shrug of the shoulders tell politicians, current and future, about the risk-to-benefit ratio of shovelling public funds to marginal seats?

Her former deputy premier, John Barilaro, has the answer.

Earlier this year, he told a parliamentary inquiry into the administration of bushfire recovery grants pork barrelling was equivalent to “investment”.

“When you think about it, every single election that every party goes to, we make commitments,” he said. “You want to call that pork barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, it’s what the elections are for.”

Berejiklian said the process was “unfortunately not unique or uncommon” after it was revealed last year that $140m in grants given to councils prior to the previous NSW election had gone overwhelmingly to Coalition-held seats.

But her Icac evidence reveals, in stark terms, where politicians draw the new line in the sand.

Integrity experts warn this new apparent norm of pork barrelling, condoned by the ex-premier, should not be allowed to settle.

Using public funds to benefit whichever party happens to be in power is not part and parcel of “democracy”.

It is an abuse of government. It entrenches power to the incumbent. It tips the electoral scales against parties of opposition.

It may not be a criminal offence, but it must be rooted out for liberal democracy to thrive.

Geoffrey Watson, SC, a former counsel assisting to Icac, said as much last week, after Berejiklian’s first day of evidence.

“Let’s drop this expression pork barrelling, let’s call it what it really is: misuse of public money,” he told the ABC. “It’s just wrong. I just don’t understand why we excuse this conduct. The whole idea of ‘pork-barrelling, it’s OK because everyone does it’, that would soon lead to the most appalling conduct. You just slide to the lowest denominator.”

In NSW, at least, there are bodies like the Independent Commission Against Corruption to shine a light on such practices.

That is sadly lacking at a federal level.

Not so Berejiklian’s worldview of pork barrelling as the norm. That is very much shared by her commonwealth counterparts.

Sports rorts brought that into sharp relief, more than any other scandal in recent memory. The government was condemned for directing the vast majority of the $100m Community Sports Infrastructure grants program into marginal or targeted electorates, usually against the advice of Sport Australia.

But there have been plenty more examples since.

Earlier this year, it was revealed the commonwealth had awarded $389m for commuter car parks one day before Scott Morrison called the 2019 federal election.

Before that, we heard that a grant scheme for security cameras, known as the Safer Communities Fund, was used to distribute $8.5m to 53 projects before the last election, only five of which were in safe Labor seats.

In too many instances, the money is doled out in ways that contradicts departmental advice.

But when Berejiklian was faced with this proposition, she dismissed bureaucrats as lacking the requisite political nous for such decision-making.

Departments, she said, were not expert at “winning byelections”.

Indeed they are not.

That’s why their advice is so important.


Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp

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