SA government denies pork-barrelling accusations on sports grants, amid broader national discussion over the practice

In politics, making good on election commitments should be thought of as core business.

But how those promises are created, then delivered, in government can be a minefield for politicians of all political persuasions.

From commuter cark parks by the Federal Coalition to infrastructure cash for arts groups in New South Wales, in recent years the use of grant programs to pay for promises across the nation have attracted accusation of pork-barrelling.

In South Australia, the new Labor Government has also faced that accusation after committing more than $80 million to upgrades of sporting clubs, the overwhelming majority in seats the party either held or was targeting at the March state election.

Premier Peter Malinauskas and senior cabinet ministers insist everything has been done by the book and they are making good on the commitments pledged before polling day.

But legal experts question the processes used amid a wider national conversation about pork-barrelling and elections promises.

Promising big to win big

When Treasurer Stephen Mullighan delivered SA Labor’s first post-election budget months earlier than usual on June 2, it included $84.4 million for local sports club facility upgrades.

An additional $13 million has been set aside specifically for female facilities at sports clubs.

All of the cash has been allocated this financial year, meaning needs to be out the door by June 30.

As of June 9, 72 projects had been funded with more to come.

Tilley Recreation Park, in the seat of King, is set to be upgraded for $4.75 million.(Supplied)

For example, the Happy Valley Sports and Social Club, in Adelaide’s southern suburbs, was promised $1 million by then-candidate and now Member for Davenport Erin Thompson during the campaign, but it doesn’t feature on the list.

Of the projects, 69 are in what are now Labor-held seats.

Just two non-ALP-held electorates — Black in the southern suburbs and Hartley in the east — have had projects funded.

At least $28.5 million has gone into what were Liberal marginal seats that Labor managed to flip on March 19, with another $15.6 million into Labor marginal electorates the party was trying to shore up.

Regional areas largely miss out. Only projects in Whyalla, Kangaroo Island and Fleurieu Peninsula are set to get funding, and they are represented by Labor MPs.

The line between election commitments and pork-barrelling

The pledges have prompted the Liberals to accuse Labor of pork-barrelling, the funnelling of funds into specific seats to try and secure an electoral advantage.

“I think it meets the definition of pork-barrelling,” said opposition leader David Speirs, before conceding all political parties engage in the practice.

It’s an allegation Premier Peter Malinauskas has denied.

“All the commitments that we made prior to the state election were out there on the public record,” he told ABC News.

A man wearing a blue suit and white shirt but no tie stands among large classical columns
David Speirs says the grants amounted to pork-barrelling.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

Mr Malinauskas has repeatedly said the promises were “election commitments” the new government was intent on delivering.

“We are fulfilling our electoral mandate,” Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis said.

Other jurisdictions are investigating the practice of pork-barrelling as they look to tighten controls or even make it illegal.

A forum was held about the practice by the News South Wales anti-corruption watchdog the day after the South Australian budget was delivered.

In her written submission to the forum, lawyer and constitutional law expert Anne Twomey argued in a federal context there are flawed processes and “a large loophole” when it comes to the financial accountability of election promises.

Woman wearing printed red, pink and purple blazer looking at the camera.
Anne Twomey says there is scope for reform of how grant programs are delivered.(ABC News)

She also acknowledges the Commonwealth has “superior legal mechanisms” in place to ensure financial probity compared to a state like New South Wales.

“Prior to elections and by-elections, promises are frequently made to fund infrastructure or make grants within electorates without any assessment having been made about the value of the project, its feasibility and the capacity of the recipient to deliver the project and make best use of it,” she writes.

“There are no guidelines, eligibility criteria, applications or assessments of merit before commitments are made to provide the funding.”

Ms Twomey says politicians could announce a policy to spend a certain amount on a program on a “fair basis according to merit and need” once applications and assessments were done after an election rather than before it.

“This would allow them to be elected on the basis of policies, rather than electoral bribes,” she writes.

“However, many politicians appear to prefer to be seen to be handing out gifts to their electorate, even if it is unfair, inefficient, ineffective and a misuse of public funds for party gain.”

They are thoughts echoed by the Centre for Public Integrity, a national body headed by former judges and legal experts, which has conducted a study at a federal level into the administration of grants.

It recommends a three-tiered system focused on criteria, reporting and accountability of schemes, which should also be applicable to election promises.

“Election commitments around spending should still go through proper processes and the same things that we’re saying, there needs to be criteria. There needs to be open tender,” the organisation’s executive director Han Aulby said.

“I think election commitments are another step along the path of avoiding scrutiny of spending.”

A sign for the Office for Recreation, Sport and Racing stands outside a two-storey brick building
The Office for Recreation, Sport and Racing was not called to assess the projects once Labor formed government.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

While the promises were made in opposition, the Office for Recreation, Sport and Racing was not called to assess the projects once Labor formed government.

“They went through the necessary process of approval in opposition which is when we developed the election policy,” said Mr Malinauskas.

“And then now having formed government we ensure that the budget realised that expenditure and naturally the budget goes through a cabinet process.”

Mr Mullighan told a budget estimates hearing on June 17 that Labor members and Labor candidates “engaged closely with their communities, sometimes over a period of years, to better understand what their priorities were”.

“When we understood those priorities, we made a series of commitments to local sporting clubs.”

Why language may matter

“We have committed, in these sporting grants, I think a similar quantum as to what the Office for Rec and Sport would have provided to agencies across a four-year period in their regular grants,” Mr Mullighan told the same hearing.

Three days later, before his estimates session, the Premier pointedly refused to refer to the grants as grants despite their listing in budget papers.

“There is not a grant program, there are just election commitments being delivered,” he said.

The reasons for the marked change in language are not clear.

However, the Liberal opposition has pointed out that government rules surrounding “grants” require senior public servants to ensure they are justified and in the public interest.

Can improvements be made?

To avoid issues into the future, Anne Twomey argues there is scope for the reform of how grant programs are delivered.

This includes creating a legal requirement that grant schemes are authorised by legislation, which she says would improve transparency and accountability.

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