Behold The Dance Of The Travelling Salesmen

On Sunday Tony Abbott announced his government would provide $10 million to upgrade the Brookvale Oval in New South Wales.

As the Coalition’s press release puts it, “Brookvale Oval is the only ground between Sydney Harbour and Gosford that meets NRL standards.” Furthermore, “Only the Coalition can be trusted to deliver the Brookvale Oval upgrade and better sporting facilities for the Northern Beaches.”

Such is the high stakes of federal politics.

Every election carnival has its major attractions – the set-piece debates and the big announcements that consume half a week’s worth of media coverage. Think of Tony Abbott’s corporate tax cut. Or Kevin Rudd’s northern Australia policy.

But in between these major announcements, there’s a whole lot of filler. Stadium revamps. Road extensions. Oval upgrades.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the stream of spending promises that accompany elections, we rarely reflect on how absurd they are.

For these critical few weeks, when Australians decide who is best to lead, the election campaign subordinates the serious task of distributing public revenue to theatrical opportunism.

We hope for the clash of political visions. But we get rival groups of travelling salesmen, each trying to one-up the others’ offer.

The Brookvale Oval promise has received a bit more scrutiny because the ground is already getting its upgrade – Labor’s Anthony Albanese committed to it a few weeks ago. And the money was already allocated in the May budget.

Few of the usual handouts get that sort of attention.

Over the past two weeks, Abbott has announced he would, if elected, provide money for an Antarctic research centre, a Hobart Airport upgrade, a netball centre in Queensland, a sports centre in Penrith (also announced by Albanese earlier), and a recreation centre in Victoria.

Kevin Rudd would like to be elected so he can hand taxpayer cash to a discovery centre in Melbourne’s east, a sports complex in Launceston, a refurbishment of the Hobart Showground, a gymnastics centre in Mackay, and a natural gas research centre.

There’s clear no rhyme or reason to any of these promises. From the outside they seem completely arbitrary; a scatter plot of spending. They’re sometimes handed to marginal seats, but not always. Hopefully they have some internal logic.

But it’s hard to imagine a single vote being swung on whether the Brookvale Oval or Hobart Showground gets federal funding.

We should distinguish these promises from another group of similarly forgettable announcements meant to reinforce specific messages. Does anybody remember Abbott’s pledge in 2010 to set up an “Office of Due Diligence” in the prime ministers’ department, to vet new spending programs? Of course not. It wasn’t a serious policy suggestion: it was promised solely to remind voters that Labor was wasting taxpayers’ money.

The challenge for any opposition is to convert their core argument – the government is terrible – into deliverable policy. Much policy devised during an election campaign is like this.

Different again are the big, headline-grabbing infrastructure spends. Take Abbott’s promise to put $7 billion into the Bruce Highway in Queensland or $1.5 billion into the East West Link in Melbourne. At least these are subjected to some public debate, and even – occasionally – a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate they are actually worth doing.

In 2008 the Labor government created an independent body, Infrastructure Australia, to scrutinise such spending. The idea was to avoid pork barrelling. A lovely thought. But the Coalition feels no need to abide by the body’s recommendations. And Labor ignores them when convenient. (The Parramatta to Epping Rail Link in Sydney, a last minute pledge of Julia Gillard in the 2010 election, was never favoured by Infrastructure Australia.)

Anyway, minor showground renovations are well below the threshold for Infrastructure Australia, which only looks at “projects of national significance”.

That is, it only looks at things the federal government should be doing.

If upgrading the only ground between Sydney Harbour and Gosford that meets NRL standards is a desirable use taxpayers’ money, perhaps it could be paid for by state or local governments, whose citizens will directly benefit.

But then federal politicians wouldn’t be able to claim credit.

The purpose of the pork barrel road show is impressionistic rather than specific. It is spending as white noise – designed to give a potential voters a feeling that a Labor or Coalition government will be generous with federal funding. Not generous anywhere particular, but everywhere.

Tony Abbott says he would like to be considered an “infrastructure prime minister”. He’s promising “cranes over cities” like so many storks around a watering hole.

The sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe consumption that was valued for the impression it left on others, rather than the utility it bought the consumer.

So much of what passes for policy during an election campaign is conspicuous investment – not important for its own sake, but to demonstrate how freely money would flow under the next government.

After all, if Brookvale Oval gets its funding, who knows? Maybe your pet project could be next.