What is pork barrelling?

Federal Independent MP Helen Haines has introduced laws that would shed more light on how public money is spent by politicians
Helen Haines has introduced laws to stamp out pork barrelling in politics

Federal Independent MP Helen Haines is calling for an end to the long-standing political practice of “pork barrelling”.

The term describes politicians spending or promising funding in marginal seats – electorates held by a small majority – to win votes.

Haines has introduced a bill that would require more transparency to justify this kind of spending.

Pork barrelling

Many community funding announcements are based on genuine needs and merit. However, other projects may be rushed for political gain, without undergoing the necessary screening processes.

Here’s an example:

A local member wins their seat at an election by just a few hundred votes. When the next election campaign rolls around, the Opposition announces funding for a new hospital in the area, without investigating if it’s actually necessary, in order to secure votes to win back the seat. This could be described as pork barrelling.

Is it illegal?

Current rules mean Ministers can allocate funding against departmental advice, and without completing processes to determine merit.

There are no laws specifically banning pork barrelling. However, ‘electoral bribery’ is illegal – where someone seeking election or re-election directly gives or receives gifts or benefits from voters.

Election bribery is illegal, but the law specifically excludes “a promise of public action” — meaning politicians who promise funding to win votes are not in breach of the law.

Politicians accused of misusing public funds can face the national anti-corruption commission.


There have been multiple high-profile scandals involving alleged pork barrelling in Australian politics.

In the lead-up to the 2019 election, the then-Coalition Government gave sports grants to marginal electorates. This became known as the “sports rorts saga”. A national audit (review) found that then-Sports Minister Senator Bridget McKenzie had approved more than 90 projects that weren’t recommended by her department.

Proposed laws

This week, Haines introduced a bill that would force more details about government grants to be made public.

Under the independent MP’s proposal, Parliament would have greater oversight of grant programs. Ministers would have to notify Parliament if they allocated funding in their own electorate.

They would also need to inform Parliament if they approved a grant when their department had advised them not to.

“A form of corruption”

Haines described the practice of pork barrelling as a “flaw of democracy”, citing research from the Australia Institute which found 80% of voters think pork barrelling is a form of corruption.

“At election time, the major parties use taxpayer money to shore up votes in marginal seats,” Haines said. She argued pork barrelling “destroys public trust in government processes”.

Haines has received support from other independent MPs, including Dr Monique Ryan and Senator David Pocock.

What now?

The reforms will be debated in the lower house of Parliament. The bill will need the support of the government to progress to the Senate, but it’s not yet clear if Labor will support it.

Haines has met with Finance Minister Katy Gallagher to discuss the details of the bill. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the government was “open to making sure that every dollar of taxpayer money is used wisely and well”.

A spokesperson for the Coalition said the party “will consider the Bill through its usual party processes“.

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