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State budget scraping the bottom of the (pork) barrel


A state budget proposal to spend $40 million on community-driven local spending is nothing but pork-barrelling dressed up as direct democracy, writes Mark Brindal.

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Presenting the SA Budget, Tom Koutsantonis characterised it as wearing a “sexy red dress”. The Treasurer would have been more honest had he fronted the parliament wearing a barrel…. a pork barrel.

It’s become almost traditional in western democracies for Governments to play Scrooge early in their term. Then, in the budget closest to the election they undergo metamorphosis; Scrooge becomes Father Christmas. State and Federal, Liberal and Labor, they all do it.

Rarely, however, it is so brazen or so monumental.

Transforming Health has long been a foundation of the Weatherill Government. The rest of us simply lacked the wit to understand it.

In the last week, though, these purported absolute necessities to our better health seem to have been compromised on the altar of electoral expediency. Having been harangued that an Emergency service at the QEH was unnecessary when a better service existed a few heart beats away (assuming one’s heart continued to beat), the QEH will now get its Emergency Services upgrade. Similar compromises have been made at every major hospital.

Was the blueprint for Transforming Health fatally flawed? Is this solution better, or simply political pandering to the clamoring multitude? Are the new proposals properly conceived and planned or hurried window dressing?

Would it mischievous to observe that the hospitals involved are either situated in or service electorates that the ALP must win to retain government?

But the Transforming Health contortions were an appetizer compared the main course of the Budget – a feast of pork.

Bension Siebert reported in InDaily yesterday that Koutsantonis is “giving $40 million to ‘neighborhoods’ to spend as they wish – gazumping the traditional role of local councils”.

Remembering that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, the Government describes this pork barrel as “one of the largest direct democracy budget exercises in the world”. Local areas will be allocated a portion of the $40 million to spend on ‘community’ projects.

Since 1840, South Australia has acknowledged the need for local initiative and action. The concept is enshrined in our biggest statute – the Local Government Act.

That Act creates democratically-elected councils to oversee local needs and amenity. Core functions include household services, parks, and lighting. Since decisions are vested in directly elected representatives, it is as democratic as either State or Federal Parliament. If its competence is questionable, the Government can make correction legislatively.

Whenever expenditure is garnered through taxation there is a balance between what we would like and what we can afford. The art is to get that balance right. However, given unmet needs, I feel sure that the Treasurer’s $40 million cash cow will be welcomed.

However, when we have a proven mechanism for administering such money, why create another one?

What could motivate Government to want to micro-manage its own largesse? It cannot be that it will be able to control the selection of projects. It can do that with the local government sector already.

Maybe the answers lie in the Treasurer’s own statements. “Individuals and community groups will be asked to submit proposals.” That’s you and me. And, unless the guidelines ban them, its equally the local councillor or political candidates at the next election.

Political parties have the tools to determine not only the marginal seats but also the critical pockets within those electorates that contain its swinging voters.

Proposing a project might sway some. Initiating it might sway more.

It’s an act of desperation, and a recipe for disaster

Koutsantonis would counter that it’s an arms-length process and that all projects will be subject to a vote.

The devil is in the detail. We have yet to learn how projects will be initially vetted. Who will get to vote? What will the vote be on?

If it’s democratic, we should all get a vote. Yet that seems counterintuitive to the local aspect.

I suggest that electors in marginal seats will be given the option to accept or reject a free gift… and people are generally disinclined to turn away a free gift. Alternately they might be offered a choice between improved lighting and an upgraded park. Either way, it’s classic pork barreling.

The concept has the added appeal that electorate boundaries often straddle council jurisdictions. This proposal allows the targeting of public monies at specific areas that will buy the most votes.

Have the consequences been explored? Our ownership of infrastructure such as parks and street lighting is vested in the tier of government that apparently cannot be trusted to make the decisions. Are they likely to permit such projects to be undertaken on their property?

Consider a skate park. Who carries the public liability? Who pays for the maintenance, ongoing costs and eventual demolition?

Just how intelligent is it to ignore a tier of government, only to then burden them with the consequences? It’s an act of desperation, and a recipe for disaster.

Was Koutsantonis serious when he suggested the hypothetical community conundrum: “We’ve got no one to walk our dogs”?

If our employment situation is so dire or our coffers so full, why not employ pooper-scoopers instead? Not only is their environmental benefit greater, they would find ongoing gainful employment in the vicinity of the North Terrace/ King William Street intersection.

Alternately, the Legislative Council should itself act as a pooper-scooper – and disallow such blatant pork barreling.

Mark Brindal was Member of the SA Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Local Government,Water Resources, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments. He has been an advocate on social issues throughout his career, and is now involved in academic writing and is a public policy consultant.

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