Clientelism and distributive politics in Australia: comparing partisan pork barrel with contingency-based vote-buying

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Clientelism’s traditional direct, contingency-based system of patrons using private finance to pursue vote-buying continues to be of significance in countries around the world. However, the rise of secret ballots, civil service protocols for public employment, and fiscal restrictions have all limited its efficacy as a tool of electoral influence, especially in modern, advanced democracies. This has promoted new, indirect variants of clientelism, in which state resources are provided to contractors in return for the finances necessary to buy votes and affect voter mobilization. Ultimately, despite these new formulations, clientelism remains premised on contingent exchanges of benefits that require monitoring and enforcement for their efficacy. These requirements have fuelled an increasing reliance on pork barrel politics and the distribution of state resources as a way to influence votes without the need for clientelism’s system of contingency-based transfers and monitoring. This paper examines distributive politics in Australia’s party-based parliamentary system and its unique compulsory voting requirement as a way to compare the strategic advantages and disadvantages of partisan pork barrel as an alternative to clientelism’s contingency-based distributive logic. Because Australia’s ruling party controls executive power and has discretion over the distribution of public funds, there are significant incentives to use the public purse for maximum electoral effect, though the possibility of scandal from charges of bias and malfeasance, as with clientelism, remains a threat. The assumptions of the clientelist and pork barrel models are compared in the context of two Australian pork barrel programs: 1993 Labor sports grants; and 2004 Liberal-National Regional Partnerships Program grants.

Original languageEnglish
Article number172
Pages (from-to)600-621
Number of pages22
JournalActa Politica
Issue number4
Early online date22 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


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