If you care about government integrity, here’s what to watch out for ahead of the election | Danielle Wood and Rebecca Joiner

A federal elections are looming. This is the time when we all pay a little more attention to our politicians. And with the stakes so high, this is also the time when governments are most likely to abuse the powers of office. So if you care about the integrity of government, here’s what you should watch out for in the coming months.

Roll the pork barrels

In the pre-election period, the temptation to use taxpayers’ money to shore up marginal seats seems irresistible. As the 2019 elections approach, for example, the government has committed to:

  • $100 million to a community sports grant program, which the Auditor General says was not awarded according to assessed merit and was biased in favor of fringe voters

  • $660 million for 47 commuter parking sites, also deemed by the Auditor General not to be merit-based, 77% of which are located in Coalition ridings

Keep an eye on this election campaign – the government has given itself a generous war chest. In the December budget update, the government allocated $15.9 billion in unidentified spending for “decisions taken but not yet announced”, a sharp increase from the December budget update figure of the government. previous year of $1.5 billion.

Political parties are full of money

Political donations always increase in the pre-election period. Parties devote much more effort to fundraising and donors are also more aware of opportunities for influence.

During the 2019 campaign, the big giving story was Clive Palmer, who donated $84 million to fund his own campaign. Although he did not win any seats, many people, including Palmer, believe his relentless anti-Labour publicity boosted the Coalition vote.

Great parties also have great supporters. In reality, Analysis of the Grattan Institute shows that the top 5% of party donors account for more than half of their reported donations. The usual suspects – mining and resources, real estate and construction, and gaming companies – gave more than one would expect given their economic size.

But while we may see the wall-to-wall advertising in this campaign, we won’t know where the money is coming from until February 2023, as donation disclosures are only released once a year. And even then we will only get a partial picture because high reporting thresholds and large gaps mean that major parties generally report less than 60% of their total private funding.

More taxpayer-funded political advertising

Governments frequently significantly increase taxpayer-funded advertising in the months leading up to election campaigns.

The guidelines restrict the use of taxpayer-funded advertising for political purposes. However, Grattan’s analysis shows that over the past five elections, federal governments have on average doubled their spending in the two to three months leading up to an election, compared to the three months preceding an election.

We can expect more of the same as we get closer to the 2022 election. Analysis published in the Guardian, based on government tender documents, suggests that an additional $59 million will be deployed in the run-up to the 2022 elections. We have already seen in recent months the positive energy campaign and advertisements about the government getting more rapid antigen tests.

A rush for government appointments

Ministers are responsible for filling hundreds of positions on independent government boards and agencies. As an election approaches, there seems to be a rush for these positions – even some of those not currently vacant.

Governments like to control who occupies positions of power, especially when these positions are prestigious or well paid. A forthcoming report by the Grattan Institute will show that the appointment of “political fellows” to these positions is increasingly common.

For example, approximately 21% of the current members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal have a direct political affiliation. The proportion of new members appointed to the AAT with a political affiliation increased from less than 8% in 2014-2015 to 32% in 2018-2019.

There were a slew of government appointments ahead of the 2019 election, including many former politicians and staff. Watch out for a new wave of ministerial press releases announcing such appointments in the weeks to come. Hopefully the media will forensically examine the backgrounds of those who get a gig.

A way to strengthen integrity?

It’s a depressing list to publish, but the first step to crushing gray corruption is to make it more visible. Any exercise of a government’s decision-making powers to serve political interests rather than the national interest is a breach of Australian public trust. He should be called.

But elections are also a time to demand better. No political party has a monopoly on bad behavior. Do they announce policies to improve transparency and limit the influence of money in politics? Will they introduce more checks and balances on government infrastructure spending and grant funding? Will they commit to merit-based appointments for government positions? And do they support a well-resourced integrity commission with the power to investigate this type of gray corruption?

These are some of the questions we will pay attention to in the 2022 election campaign.

Danielle Wood is CEO and Rebecca Joiner is Senior Associate at the Grattan Institute

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