Ministerial Discretion, grants, pork-barrelling
Rosie Williams, BA (Sociology)
26th Apr 2022
Yes Minister
A look in the rear-view mirror to see what has changed in grant spending over recent decades.

As we move into an election it is time to provide some analysis of grants awarded with Ministerial Discretion. Please note that data in this article is based on grants from Jan 2018 to March 31, 2022. The calculations on individual electorate results in the grants directory for guest users (with the exception of the chart for grants by month) exclude the most recent three months.

Late last year, The Australia Institute published a report on this same topic and I have referred to that report in the research tools that I have created and made available to the public. However, grants on this site cover a vastly different scope to the handful of programs analysed the by Institute or most research into pork-barrelling.

Understanding Grants Data

Grant data in this site comes from grants.gov.au which is the whole-of-government repository that went online in January 2018, requiring all Commonwealth government agencies (aka Non-Corporate Commonwealth Entities) to regularly submit their most recent grants to that site for publication and as such, imposing a common set of fields and publication timetable across those grants.

Commonwealth tenders have been available in a similar repository for decades. It says something about the politicisation of grant administration and/or the inertia of whole-of-government change, that it took so long for such a uniform approach to be applied to grant decisions.

This is reflected in the lamentations of a 2008 Strategic Review of Discretionary Grants Programs commissioned by the Department of Finance:

...the amount of spending on discretionary grant programs by the Commonwealth Government is disputed and difficult to measure. The first element of this review revealed shortcomings in the availability of data on discretionary grant spending that makes it “impossible to compile a comprehensive and reliable picture of grant program activity across the Commonwealth”.

I have been working with Commonwealth grants data since 2015 and took part in lobbying toward introducing the grant repository. Work such as mine is cited as reasons for increasing transparency in the publication of government spending decisions, however the decision to implement such a mechanism would have been preceded by a history that predated and dwarfs such individual efforts.

Prior to the establishment of the grants repository, each agency published grants on their own sites, choosing what information to include or leave out (with some limitations) and in different formats and on different timetables. This made research on grants published prior to 2018 very difficult. This problem still exists with grants published by organisations like Sport Australia because the guidelines for publication required of these organisations are different to government agencies. This is due to them not being governed directly by the government and includes organistions like the ABC, Australia Post and Sport Australia. These organisations are Corporate Commonwealth Entities.

Grants made by Corporate Commonwealth Entities constitute a small fraction of all grants and they are not required to report their grants in the same way as is required of government agencies. However recent changes have come into effect due to the Sport Australia scandal. Where ministers intervene in selecting grant recipients, those specific grant decisions must now also be reported to grants.gov.au.

Since 2018, grants made by government agencies (Non Corporate Commonwealth Entities) number over 133,000 covering over 1,900 programs*. As such this site addresses decision making across a much broader scope than grant analysis applied to a small handful of programs.

Grants can be awarded in different ways depending on the needs of the program but regardless of the selection process advertised, Ministers can override that to direct grants to certain recipients. In addition to these sporadic interventions, there are also programs where every grant is made by Ministers. Together, these two approaches are referred to in the data on AusGovInfo as grants selected via an 'Ad Hoc' process.

Grant Value by Selection Process

Just less than a third of the programs published since 2018 have every grant decided by the Minister and another sixth of that number were decided largely by a different process with some decisions overridden by Ministers. The remainder and majority have no Ministerial Discretion reported for selection of recipients.

Program Number by Level of Ministerial Intervention

While the individual programs that Ministers use to influence recipient decisions number in the hundreds, they account for less than 8.5% of the value of all grants. This still amounts to 27,439 grants or nearly $7 billion in government spending since January 2018.

All Grants By Year


The dip in grants funding during Covid is potentially due to the large number of organisations reducing their operations at this time. Government spending increased during this period through non-grant programs paid out through the taxation system.

To put today's grant-making into context, the 2008 Strategic Review came about as a result of concern over an 'explosion' in grant programs that took place between 2003 and 2007 which saw grant spending to mushroom from $494 million to $4.5 billion. In today's money, that equates to a fraction of current grant spending. At the heart of the report is a concern with grant-making as a fit-for-purpose means of achieving policy aims.

Discretionary grants are universally problematic because of the implied association with pork-barrel and other forms of overt political “meddling” in the allocation of public resources. In Australia both major parties have been accused of pork-barrel while in government (Sport Rorts; and Regional Partnerships);

The perennial issue of using discretionary grant programs in an attempt to win seats has a long history with the more recent scandal which took the scalp of Bridgett McKenzie showing how few lessons were learned after a similar episode in the mid-90s under the ALP.

"This affair saw this minister, who had a two-year program of $30 million, blow the lot over a three-month period. She cleaned out the whole fund that was supposed to last until July 1994, in a desperate effort to shovel funds to marginal Labor electorates prior to the March 1993 election. She got rid of the $30 million by the end of January and the prime minister called the election on 7 February. She delved out $326,000, on average, to Labor marginal seats while Coalition marginal seats got exactly half." Peter Costello SMH

More recently, the 2012 High Court challenge to the funding of the National School Chaplaincy Program demonstrated that discretionary grant-making can be as legally questionable as it is politically motivated. Echoing the 2008 concerns that discretionary grant-making is not an appropriate mechanism to fund policy without the scrutiny provided by authorising legislation, Williams v Commonwealth showed the dubious legal standing on which many grant programs had been funded.

These cases opened a can of worms for contracts worth billions of dollars. The government swiftly gaffer-taped over the yawning chasm of accountability with stop-gap legislation so these grant programs could continue. So where does this leave the use of Ministerial Discretion?

Having only grown in value and number over the decades, grant programs to charities and industry have become such a substantial part of governing that they have come to take over such administrative functions as cancelling eligibility for income support to job seekers. This incudes responsibilities which, if granted to any organisation other than the government would have been unthinkable decades ago. This politicisation of government administration has become so uninhibited that the smell of our decaying principles is becoming too strong for comfort.

Constitutional law expert Anne Twomey tells LSJ: “There seems to be a growing attitude at both the Commonwealth and State levels that Ministers have complete discretion, particularly in relation to spending public money, and that there is nothing unlawful about them using governmental resources for personal or political gain.  “This, of course, is wrong. “At the very least, such action will often breach administrative law requirements that govern the actions of decision-makers, but it will also sometimes breach the Constitution, statutory limits on ministerial power, finance laws, anti-corruption laws and codes of conduct for Ministers and Members of Parliament.”

With over 40,000 organisations across the country now invested in receiving government funding through discretionary grants, successive governments have succeeded in embroiling a substantial sector of the economy in carrying out their policies. In one sense this could be viewed as a democratisation of government administration, devolving this power to non-government organisations. It could also be viewed as the colonisation of community organisations by government, requiring organisations that were once expected to have independent voices to tow the government line, and in doing so, silencing dissent.

“The politicisation of the public service, the gutting of skill and talent from the public service, and also the widespread practice of outsourcing huge parts of the functioning of government to consultants. “All of these things are contributing to a pretty fundamental breakdown in the ability of government to function in a professional and above-board way. It’s opened up a lot more scope for corruption and just really poor and partisan decision making, and that’s led to the blurring of lines between the public good and what’s good for the party.”
“At one level, it is clear there has been a very dramatic decline in the values of the major political parties and their application of standards to themselves, particularly at ministerial level,” ... the rules of engagement around discretion in political funding are “vague, not well constrained and deliberately manufactured to enable pork barrelling”. LSJ

Set against this backdrop, I hope that providing the breakdown of grants by the decision making process used to award each of them and the electorate of the organisation in receipt of each grant can empower both experts and the public with greater insight into how government funding is spent. Unlike other research, this site is updated monthly to follow the money wherever the decision makers choose to spend it- at least so long as the public is willing to fund me.

*The definition of program used above is grant program not PBS program.

Ad Hoc grants as % of grants to Electorate

%Ad HocAll
Tangney 72% 121.15 M 169.40 M
Bean 34% 53.74 M 159.65 M
McMahon 34% 9.66 M 28.26 M
Mcewen 32% 7.58 M 23.59 M
Bonner 28% 62.91 M 222.14 M
North Sydney 25% 254.59 M 1,036.08 M
Calwell 23% 57.32 M 248.92 M
Berowra 23% 5.48 M 24.32 M
Fenner 22% 8.94 M 40.38 M
Wentworth 21% 45.60 M 218.87 M
Fadden 20% 9.78 M 49.25 M
Brisbane 19% 758.58 M 3,954.46 M
McPherson 19% 46.91 M 246.42 M
Dickson 19% 8.30 M 42.63 M
Fisher 18% 27.60 M 150.69 M
Shortland 18% 2.46 M 13.36 M
Melbourne 17% 1,330.61 M 7,777.98 M
Canberra 17% 493.32 M 2,883.62 M
Warringah 17% 32.64 M 195.77 M
Lilley 16% 62.01 M 388.64 M
Reid 15% 26.73 M 174.74 M
Lalor 15% 7.81 M 50.97 M
Cooper 13% 59.91 M 470.13 M
Bendigo 13% 26.11 M 196.28 M
Watson 13% 11.86 M 88.04 M
Maribyrnong 13% 9.18 M 72.75 M
Petrie 13% 3.96 M 31.55 M
Gilmore 12% 31.80 M 259.35 M
Ballarat 12% 16.51 M 139.80 M
Holt 12% 7.88 M 65.51 M
Banks 12% 6.11 M 50.80 M
Oxley 12% 4.73 M 38.25 M
La Trobe 12% 4.25 M 36.34 M
Perth 11% 137.60 M 1,277.33 M
Bradfield 11% 10.32 M 91.88 M
Sydney 10% 666.94 M 6,894.21 M
Cunningham 10% 49.16 M 501.40 M
Hindmarsh 10% 24.50 M 239.36 M
Fremantle 10% 19.15 M 191.32 M
Blaxland 10% 7.16 M 74.08 M
Calare 9% 34.17 M 386.81 M
Moncrieff 9% 20.34 M 216.81 M
Braddon 9% 15.62 M 181.76 M
Macnamara 8% 75.58 M 916.37 M
Kooyong 8% 57.01 M 742.04 M
Corio 8% 37.26 M 462.32 M
Riverina 8% 33.18 M 396.67 M
Groom 8% 18.33 M 240.97 M
Eden-Monaro 8% 15.13 M 197.50 M
Sturt 8% 14.32 M 168.86 M
Flynn 8% 11.43 M 142.57 M
Spence 8% 9.04 M 118.02 M
Forde 8% 5.47 M 64.48 M
Deakin 8% 3.58 M 45.56 M
Fraser 8% 3.53 M 44.60 M
Curtin 7% 69.41 M 1,048.79 M
Newcastle 7% 50.16 M 693.24 M
Chisholm 7% 34.97 M 506.41 M
Cook 7% 8.12 M 115.64 M
Mayo 7% 8.09 M 119.38 M
Moore 7% 6.89 M 98.44 M
Werriwa 7% 1.76 M 26.41 M
Swan 6% 68.76 M 1,200.49 M
Leichhardt 6% 65.01 M 1,099.55 M
Clark 6% 55.66 M 918.26 M
Bennelong 6% 55.16 M 893.40 M
Higgins 6% 28.35 M 469.41 M
Aston 6% 8.98 M 153.21 M
Wide Bay 6% 8.53 M 154.19 M
Greenway 6% 6.14 M 101.96 M
Hughes 6% 5.13 M 89.61 M
Hume 6% 4.75 M 78.29 M
Pearce 6% 4.66 M 75.14 M
Menzies 6% 4.45 M 71.77 M
Barton 6% 3.86 M 61.09 M
Kingston 6% 3.35 M 57.25 M
Ryan 5% 58.15 M 1,265.36 M
Griffith 5% 50.50 M 1,066.55 M
Indi 5% 12.77 M 267.66 M
Fairfax 5% 10.11 M 224.09 M
Lindsay 5% 9.84 M 183.63 M
Gellibrand 5% 9.60 M 179.02 M
Goldstein 5% 8.51 M 158.13 M
Mackellar 5% 7.10 M 146.52 M
Scullin 5% 6.22 M 118.15 M
Macquarie 5% 5.89 M 121.94 M
Rankin 5% 5.79 M 109.55 M
Bruce 5% 4.87 M 93.15 M
Dobell 5% 4.53 M 97.38 M
Jagajaga 5% 4.41 M 97.61 M
Dunkley 5% 3.67 M 80.94 M
Cowan 5% 2.33 M 42.46 M
Adelaide 4% 172.16 M 3,875.32 M
Kingsford Smith 4% 107.28 M 2,392.66 M
Hotham 4% 61.29 M 1,496.43 M
Grayndler 4% 27.20 M 685.46 M
Page 4% 19.83 M 465.76 M
Moreton 4% 17.57 M 408.36 M
Franklin 4% 16.83 M 408.81 M
Bass 4% 12.52 M 290.22 M
Fowler 4% 8.06 M 182.91 M
Forrest 4% 7.12 M 177.21 M
Robertson 4% 6.96 M 155.82 M
Monash 4% 6.47 M 146.40 M
Macarthur 4% 5.14 M 122.59 M
Corangamite 4% 4.10 M 104.65 M
Flinders 4% 3.65 M 88.09 M
Blair 4% 3.50 M 80.15 M
Chifley 4% 3.23 M 74.25 M
Paterson 4% 3.23 M 82.87 M
Wright 4% 2.86 M 65.28 M
Gorton 4% 2.44 M 65.14 M
None 3% 212.53 M 6,441.84 M
Parramatta 3% 19.47 M 709.51 M
Parkes 3% 18.45 M 616.15 M
New England 3% 11.55 M 337.28 M
Herbert 3% 10.26 M 334.55 M
Capricornia 3% 10.00 M 296.63 M
Cowper 3% 9.42 M 342.32 M
Nicholls 3% 8.28 M 281.07 M
Isaacs 3% 8.12 M 236.01 M
Hinkler 3% 5.84 M 223.10 M
Richmond 3% 5.15 M 169.34 M
Whitlam 3% 3.10 M 94.72 M
Burt 3% 3.06 M 109.10 M
Bowman 3% 2.79 M 81.27 M
Casey 3% 2.55 M 94.68 M
Brand 3% 1.53 M 55.66 M
Lingiari 2% 41.37 M 2,457.15 M
Solomon 2% 40.03 M 1,660.06 M
Grey 2% 11.54 M 570.47 M
Maranoa 2% 8.67 M 420.43 M
Mallee 2% 7.79 M 366.87 M
Wills 2% 7.50 M 321.69 M
Wannon 2% 6.91 M 355.85 M
Gippsland 2% 6.28 M 411.48 M
O'Connor 2% 5.22 M 298.97 M
Hunter 2% 3.91 M 233.87 M
Lyne 2% 3.63 M 148.24 M
Longman 2% 2.28 M 111.02 M
Canning 2% 1.93 M 82.61 M
Durack 1% 13.81 M 1,308.56 M
Mitchell 1% 10.68 M 716.80 M
Stirling 1% 7.06 M 482.57 M
Dawson 1% 6.43 M 502.47 M
Farrer 1% 5.93 M 426.74 M
Boothby 1% 5.83 M 513.49 M
Barker 1% 5.39 M 387.51 M
Kennedy 1% 4.79 M 599.64 M
Hasluck 1% 2.43 M 167.78 M
Makin 1% 1.86 M 127.63 M
Lyons 1% 1.60 M 178.22 M