Part of the government’s stimulus package response to the global financial crisis was the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program.It consisted of a series of grants to local authorities to build or renew things like community centres, sporting facilities, parks, town halls etc – the usual suspects in community infrastructure. The program consisted of two components; the Council Allocation component, where all councils received money for use in small projects involving the building or upgrading of local facilities – things like footpaths, lighting outdoor areas, upgrading toilet blocks etc. The second component was the Strategic Projects component, which involved the Commonwealth providing financial grants to much larger, more complicated projects that had a value of at least $2 million.
Yesterday, the Australian National Audit Office released their audit report into the Strategic Projects component of this Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program – which you can read in all its tedious glory over here.
Today, The Australian – searching for some relevance after being the only media outlet in the country that apparently didn’t have an exclusive cabinet leak on Julia Gillard – launched a front page assault on the intelligence of its readers over the contents of this ANAO report.
“Auditor slams ALP pork barrel”, “Albo’s journey from vigilante to pork-barreller”, “Mini-pork main dish of the day, with extra crackling served as a side” screamed just a few of the headlines of the stories covering the ANAO report – including on the front page of the treeware version.
From the headlines and the attached stories, The Australian would have you believe that the program funnelled disproportionally large amounts of funding into ALP seats, or key seats that the ALP believed were electorally crucial, as part of some sort of deliberate pork barrelling operation.
Now that’s all very good and well, except for the slight problem that it just isn’t true and it’s not what the audit report actually found at all 😛
The spin involved here by The Oz went far beyond breathtaking, firmly embedding itself into the comical.
When it came to the distribution of funding from this report at the electorate level – the dollars ending up on the ground and in what electorates – this is what the ANAO actually found (page 187)
Labor holds 55.3% of all seats in Parliament and those seats received 56.7% of all funding – a result within 1.5% of what we would expect those seats to receive if it was actually possible to distribute funding on an exact partisan-proportional basis.
Where the proportions got slightly out of whack – though by less than 5% – was where the three independent seats received slightly more funding at the expense of Coalition seats.
But if this was truly pork barrelling – an exercise where the government deliberately funnels money into key seats in an attempt to improve their electoral prospects – they were a dismal failure. Albo apparently lost his calculator.
ALP marginal seats – the seats that keep the ALP in government – make up 16.7% of the Parliament but received only 13.5% of funding in this program. If this was a real pork barrelling exercise, we’d expect to see funding in these seats at a rate higher than their 16.7% level of representation.
If we instead look at the seats the ALP would be most likely to gain – Coalition held marginal seats – we find that those Coalition marginals make up 21.3% of the electorate but only received 16.4% of the funding. Again, under-funded according to their representation level. If we take both sets of marginal seats together – we find that they make up 38% of Parliament, yet they only received 29.8% of all funding.
I don’t know about you, but I reckon you’d have to be a few neurons short to think that underfunding marginal seats – both the ones you hold and the ones you want – is an exercise in using public funding for electoral advantage 😛
The Australian however, not being deterred by the piffling inconvenience of empirical reality, seized on the application approval data – which, when taken to its logical conclusion, becomes pretty funny.
Before we get to that application data, it’s worth providing some context on what the government was keeping an eye on in regards to the distribution of this funding. Point 86 on page 46 states the key point:
In April 2009, prior to Cabinet being provided with recommendations as to which projects should be approved for funding, analysis of the proposed funding distribution was undertaken on a geographic and electorate basis. In addition to providing what was considered to be a reasonable geographical spread of approved funding, the proportion of total funding awarded on an electorate basis was consistent with the proportion of seats held in the House of Representatives.
So what we had was the government deliberately keeping an eye on ensuring that when the money was eventually distributed, it was consistent with the proportion of party representation in the House of Reps – primarily to avoid allegations of pork barrelling and of using public funds to boost Labor electoral prospects on a seat by seat basis.
When the government opened this program up to applications, what happened was that the numbers of applications they received for funding by local councils wasn’t distributed evenly among seats or party representation. If we look at the number of applications for funding that the program received and their eventual approval rates, this is what happened on a partisan electorate basis.
A much larger number of applications for funding came from Coalition electorates than Labor ones by local authorities. Yet, because the government had decided to distribute funding across the country on an approximately proportional partisan basis – which they ultimately did – the eventual approval rates of applications had to fit within that pre-determined, non partisan funding distribution model.
As a result of there being a larger number of applications from Coalition seats chasing a relatively pre-determined amount of funding that was proportional to the Coalitions level of political representation in the House of Reps, the approval rates of those applications were necessarily lower than what occurred in Labor held seats. Necessarily lower simply to make sure that ultimate funding was distributed evenly on an approximately partisan proportional basis.
The Australian is ignoring the actual funding data and focusing on the application data to run an editorial line on alleged Labor pork barrelling. Now, sure – you’d have to be as thick as two short planks to believe this nonsense – but to see just how silly this is, let’s take the argument they are running to its logical conclusion.
If the lower application rates for funding in Coalition seats is described by The Australian as pork barrelling, what would happen if the funding for the program was actually distributed on the basis of equal approval rates for funding applications – apparently the outcome that The Oz would see as truly non-partisan?
To figure it out, first we need to find what the average approval rate was for the total amount of funding applications. So, reorganising the data above, this is what we get:
There were a total of 484 applications received, 137 of which were approved for an overall approval rate of 28.3%. If we apply that approval rate of 28.3% to all applications and look at what the results would be on an electorate basis, we get:
Under The Australian’s somewhat bemusing interpretation of non-partisan funding, the Coalition – holding 42.7% of all seats in Parliament – would have received 55% of all funded applications if the Labor party was being fair. Similarly, according to The Oz version of funding equality, the ALP having 55.3% of all seats in Parliament would have received only 40.3% of all funded applications if they weren’t hell bent on pork-barrelling.
Considering the large differences in size of some of these projects and where, according to the ANAO, “three of the four largest grants were made to projects located in Liberal Party held electorates”, the ultimate proportion of funding flowing through to Coalition electorates would likely to have exceeded the 55% that The Oz’s preferred “equality in approval rates” joke would suggest.
Insulting your intelligence? Well, you don’t really have to Think Again about that.