Marginal districts and “pork” allocations: Australia 2013 edition

“Pork-barrel” politics, strictly defined, is the geographic targeting of policy benefits by a governing or legislative majority, for the political gain of that majority. In comparative porkology, we expect that political systems differ in which geographic areas it is that get targeted. In single-seat district systems, where small changes in votes in a few marginal constituencies can make the difference between one party or coalition governing versus another, we can expect targeting of the marginal constituencies. At least we can expect that if there is a centralized party organization making policy decisions on behalf of the collective interest of the party (i.e., winning elections). Where parties are non-hierarchical and legislative organization more decentralized, it might be the safest seats, rather than the more marginal ones, that receive most of the attention. ((See, for example, Fiona McGillivray, 1997. “Party Discipline as a Determinant of Endogenous Formation of Tariffs”, American Journal of Political Science 41, 2 (April): 584-607. She shows a tendency of trade protection in Canada (disciplined parties, parliamentary government) to be directed at marginal districts, whereas in the USA most of it goes to safe districts.))

Australia, which has a general election on 7 September, should have a tendency towards porcine spending on marginal seats, given that one of the two legislative chambers is elected exclusively in single-seat districts and it is a parliamentary democracy that encourages collective action by parties. ((However much the ruling Labor Party has spent its current period in power attempting to refute this latter theory of collective party action.)) An article on alleges this is so: “Follow the money trail: Pork barrels point to campaign hot spots.”

The news item offers a list of Australia’s ten most marginal constituencies, and what local improvements the ruling Labor Party and opposition Coalition are promising. Example: “Tony Abbott [Coalition leader] has pledged an upgrade for the Great Ocean Road, which happens to run through the nation’s most marginal electorate.”


An analysis of campaign pledges in Australia’s 10 most marginal seats reveals Labor has splashed more than $105 million cash around the ten most marginal sets.

The Liberals have pledged $70 million.

This pattern would certainly fit the theory. However, in in comparative terms, this seems rather petty. Besides, much (maybe all?) of the evidence offered here is in the form of campaign promises. Fundamentally, campaign promises aren’t pork. Pork is in the actual provision of geographically targeted spending.

Do Australian parties have a record of following through on their commitments to marginal constituencies when they win elections? Actual pork is about being able to claim credit for improvements delivered when in power, not merely promising to do stuff if (re-)elected.

Finally, an observation: from the news story, it would seem that Australian parties’ campaign promises are remarkably specific as to individual projects and their locations.

11 thoughts on “Marginal districts and “pork” allocations: Australia 2013 edition

  1. Is there less pork in countries that use proportional representation? Which system of PR discourages and encourages pork?

    One would think that pork spending in marginal districts is a bad in the sense that parties take for granted their strongholds.

    Australia use of mandatory ranking of all candidates might mitigate somewhat the use of pork because Labor knows that it is going to get the vote transfers from the Greens. And the Greens will get vote transfers from Labor. Now the Greens won’t get any vote transfers from the Liberals, or maybe they will get some leakage.

    Isn’t a country using PR, and usually has coalition governments, most of the time with the large party heading the government in alliance with a small party. Isn’t the concessions that the large party gives toward the smaller parties pork? Or can it sometimes be that the smaller party is just the lapdog of the larger party?

  2. Good questions. I don’t claim to know the answers to all of them. But, generally, I would expect that there is a pretty clear positive relationship between pork incentives and electoral rules in which targeted spending can be expected to swing seats. So PR systems should have pork to the extent that district magnitude is smaller. I am not sure this has ever been tested, though I am attempting to do so through the more indirect measure of whom parties appoint to legislative committees that have a role in “distributive” policy (forthcoming work).

    In the case of coalition governments in parliamentary systems, you might see geographic targeting if one of the partners has a geographically defined constituency. Generally, however, this is not the case: the smaller partners in most coalitions in Europe and MMP-era New Zealand typically have rather dispersed electoral support.

    As I always caution my students, it is not that concessions to win votes in the legislature (including from coalition partners) are necessarily pork, because to define something as pork we need to know that it is (1) geographically targeted, and (2) allocated through a process where the political criteria were decisive.

    • Sure, they sometimes do, JD, and I elaborated on that very point in my comment. But, again, pork is not about promises, it is about delivery and then claiming credit for delivery. And to deliver generally requires control of the legislative majority. In presidential systems, there is sometimes discretionary pork in the hands of the presidency, so we could generalize and say control of the legislative majority or of the executive (which in a parliamentary systems is essentially the same thing).

      In some cases, of course, it might be a super-majority.

  3. I seem to remember an expensive bridge built in Tauranga (Winston Peters/NZ First territory) ‘by’ National supposedly to draw votes from NZF. And interesting timing of announcments about a motorway being built in a tunnel (rather than surface) in Mt Albert (Helen Clark’s district).

    BTW MSS, your favorite NZ electoral corner is currently covered with local-body election signage!

    And speaking of pork and Australian elections:
    This practice is not widespread in NZ.

    • Errol, photos???

      Speaking of photos, when I was in Tauranga, I took a photo of that bridge, because I have used it in class as an example of targeted spending in New Zealand. This is relevant to JD’s question: the New Zealand First Party has sometimes depended on winning the Tauranga electorate in order to have a presence in parliament. This is just the sort of condition under which we might expect a small party to have an effect on geographic allocations.

  4. Is there any study showing marginal seats to do better economically than non-marginal seats?

    In the US, I’ve seen serious arguments against moving the first primary from the New Hampshire on the grounds that the change would undermine the state’s economy.

    • Ed, whether marginal constituencies receive more government largesse might be a very different question from whether they are better off economically. It would be a ceteris paribus sort of question–does the locality do better from the pork than it would do without it? Hard to control, but presumably it has been done. (I have not extensively surveyed the literature on the economics of targeted spending.)

      I would be careful about drawing analogies to US presidential primaries, given the drawn-out schedule. It is less about marginality, per se (how often are the delegates awarded in New Hampshire or Iowa decisive?), than it is about momentum-building and narrative-writing.

  5. MSS, maybe later. It was raining last weekend – people care about the weather a lot less for the (postal) local body elections than the (in person) national one!

    • Rain. What a concept.

      I did not know that local elections in New Zealand were conducted by post. Has that been the case for some time?

  6. Postal was at least common practice in the early 90’s, when I earnt some extra cash one day opening envelopes etc in Kaikohe (I was working for Far North District Council at the time).

    It was quite exciting, the leading Mayoral Candidate was discovered to be ineligible to stand after the voting papers had been sent out. Judical review, subsequent change to the acceptance of nomination form (via legislation).

    Elections cover Regions (mainly Resource Management matters), Area Health Boards (run health services with primarily central funding), Districts/Cities (normal local stuff), plus a variety of quangoes etc.
    You are elegible to vote via residency or property ownership (primary Region/District/City revenue via property taxes).

    Coming back to pork, the recent creation of Auckland Council (was a Region plus 6 Cities/Districts) created on oppurtunity to reduce the property taxes in the areas where the mayor and many of his allies draw support. Quite direct pork, but only available once a generation or so.

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