(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

The rorting of taxpayer money by the National Party in the Infrastructure portfolio is now so normalised that no one gets outraged by it any more — which is just the way the Nationals, who are the arch thieves of Australian politics, like it.

Rosie Lewis in The Australian today describes the latest rort: the Building Better Regions scheme, round four of which saw grants flow strongly to Coalition electorates and nearly $58 million flow to the electorates of Michael McCormack and three of his Nationals colleagues.

Lewis drew attention to what is a recurring feature in the way the Nationals rort grants programs: by imposing “ministerial panels” over the top of independent assessment of grant applications by public servants. This isn’t the first time a “ministerial panel” involving McCormack has been found rejecting approved projects and substituting rejected ones or ones linked to Coalition donors. Indeed, the predecessor program to “Building Better Regions”, the “Stronger Regions” program, also had a ministerial panel that rejected departmentally approved projects and substituted unapproved ones.

Ministerial panels are ideal for rorting programs. They allow a number of ministers to input ideas to where money should be distributed to, and the presence of Liberal ministers on panels can ensure that some pork makes it beyond Nationals-held seats. It also allows ministers to represent the interests of important donors and ensure the government’s broader political strategy is addressed. All of this can be done without a paper trail relating to discussions within the panel.

It also allows diffusion of responsibility. If a panel is responsible for pork-barrelling, it makes the process of exposing and covering the rorting much harder than if it is a single minister who was responsible.

Consider how Bridget McKenzie’s rorting of the sports grants program — involving decisions in her office and interactions with the PMO — could be dissected by the national audit office and then scrutinised by the media and Senate inquiries. There were paper trails, email chains and extensive records of how the program was rorted. But when it’s a group of ministers, and they can operate without a paper trail, behind closed doors, in selecting projects, it becomes much harder to track accountability and hold decision-makers to account.

Panels aren’t a new technique for rorting. One of the worst, and least reported, scandals of the Howard government was how a panel of backbenchers and staffers allocated — without any legal authority — tens of millions of dollars in advertising contracts to Liberal Party mates.

When it comes to rorting and theft of taxpayer money for partisan goals, there’s safety in numbers. And this kind of abuse is entrenched in one the sleaziest governments we’ve ever seen.