John Barilaro
NSW deputy premier John Barilaro (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

What we call pork-barrelling is investment … you want to call that pork-barrelling, you want to call that buying votes, that’s what elections are for.

John Barilaro, deputy premier of New South Wales.

To be fair to Barilaro, he expanded the point with more explicit truth-telling: “If we fund a non-government seat, it’s only because we want to win them at the next election.”

Barilaro was explaining his philosophy of governance to a NSW parliamentary inquiry, which is exploring why the government’s $252 million Stronger Communities Fund was spent almost entirely on Coalition-held seats, as was the $177 million bushfire relief fund.

Following Gladys Berejiklian’s assertion that pork-barrelling by governments is par for the course in politics, everyone does it and it’s not illegal, and on top of the industrial-scale rorting of funding programs by the Morrison government, it’s fair to say that the Coalition parties have fully discarded the mask.

Politics being the art of the possible, none of this is accidental. Our politicians are feeling bullet-proof, and with good reason. They face no risk of accountability since all the conventions of ministerial responsibility have been trashed for good and nobody’s going to lose their job over this stuff now. The public is largely uninterested, or at best disgusted in a bipartisan way.

Politicians are also not scared of legal consequences. In any event, if the only protection we have left is prosecution for corruption or misfeasance, then we have no protection at all.

The state towards which Australian political grift is drifting reminds me of a thing that happened in Singapore 30 years ago and which I found laughably quaint at the time. In 1991, Goh Chok Tong became leader of the ruling party and prime minister. He instituted an official policy position, openly promoted, called the asset enhancement program (AEP).

In Singapore, 85% of the population lives in government-subsidised housing (high rise apartments called “HBD flats”). Under the policy, Goh promised that in any electorate that returned an opposition party candidate, no money would be spent by the government on renovating or upgrading their HBD blocks. The party has been true to its word — in two recalcitrant electorates, nearly 30 years passed with no upgrade works.

That’s what I’d call reverse pork-barrelling — blackmail rather than bribery — but the principle is the same.

The key to this is not corruption as we ordinarily understand it, but moral blindness. Goh, when challenged on the AEP, always defended it by asking why any government would be silly enough to spend money on people who didn’t vote for it?

That’s indistinguishable from the logic that Berejiklian and Barilaro are defending. Why would any political party, armed with the resources of government, not actively take steps to keep itself in power?

It makes perfect and innocent sense, provided you skip over one small detail: who owns the resources they’re deploying. It’s hardly unusual for politicians to blur the distinction between the party to which they belong and the government which they serve. The Coalition has become increasingly comfortable with that for the purposes of banal politicking.

See, for example, last week’s publicly funded advertising of the government’s latest vaccine purchase, with the Liberal Party logo plastered all over it.

The longer a party stays in power, the more it is likely to see the public treasury as its own, compounded by the growing conviction that the public interest and the party’s interests are the same.

You can see where I’m heading with this. Singapore has been a one-party state since independence in 1965. Opposition candidates have never occupied more than a few seats in its parliament. It remains a functioning democracy by technical definition, but the government is unapologetic about its driving assumption that the national interest requires the incumbent party to remain in power at all costs.

That way lies authoritarian government, and ultimately totalitarianism.

Democracy founders on the rocks of the common assumptions that underpin it, once they are allowed to crumble. Most important is the understanding, so cliched as to be trite but still true, that government is of, by and for the people. Not the rulers but the ruled.

It’s not so much the constantly flowing revelations of the co-opting of public money for party political purposes which is concerning in the context of NSW and the Commonwealth, nauseating as that is. The greater worry is the growing comfort of its perpetrators.

Barilaro is buffoonish in his representation of the classical National Party morality that seems to treat the acquisition of government as the signing of a blank cheque. At the federal level, the entire Morrison government is unanchored from any belief system apart from its right to rule.

The real bellwether is Berejiklian. It still sits uncomfortably with the public perception of her persona that she should be okay with all this. However, given her direct involvement in the rorting of the local government grants scheme, it seems clear that she is.

We are led by people who have grown accustomed to confusing their own interests with those of the public and are starting to believe themselves immune from criticism or consequence. Danger signs.