GREG BAILEY. Lobbyists, corruption and neoliberalism

The revelations surrounding the fast tracking of visas for Chinese high rollers coming to Crown Casino and betting gargantuan amounts of money have been extensively covered over the last week in the media.  Corruption there certainly seems to be and not a little incipient anti-Chinese sentiment in sheeting this back mainly to wealthy Chinese gamblers.

Yet focus has also been rightly placed on Australian politicians in enabling this to happen: facilitating over the last two decades the kind of money laundering and other criminal activities large scale gambling always attracts to itself. What does this tell us about attitudes in larger culture of policy formation that enable this to flourish and demonstrate yet again the extreme forms of lobbying now so decisive in influencing public policy in this country?

Crikey (1/8) published a list of the full board of Crown and it makes for depressingly familiar reading, with names such as John Alexander, Helen Coonan, Andrew Demetrious, Harold Mitchell, Geoff Dixon, Jane Halton, and several other lesser lights–if equally well connected–coming up. At the least one would have to say that Crown is trying to cover every possible base: government, finance, health, gambling entertainment, sport, tourism and the consultancy industry.  All this shows how interlocked gambling–and the corruption surrounding it–has become in corporate society and, regrettably, government.  But surely this is only the tip of a larger iceberg.

It is true that Crown and Aristocrat Leisure are on the record as giving donations to both major political parties and that retired politicians from both parties have also served on the boards of gambling lobby groups – Stephen Conroy for Responsible Wagering for Australia, for example. And that Crown and the smaller gambling groups associated with poker machines provide considerable revenue in the form of taxes to the Victorian and New South Wales state governments. Their partial dependency on these forms of tax makes it much more difficult for these governments to do anything other than lay a light regulatory hand on Crown and the other gambling groups. In itself this is an indication of how distorted is the collection of tax receipts from Australian taxpayers, that what is often the poorest group of taxpayers-poker machine gamblers-are paying taxes because the wealthy will not.

Of course, at a different level, but still arguably a form of corruption are the much larger rorts revealed in the Banking Royal Commission, the widespread underpayment of workers in the hospitality industry and the many franchisees who are fleeced by their parent companies, and the rampant uncontrolled real estate developments occurring everywhere with minimal planning. All facilitated by weak regulatory bodies, some members of whom are part of the same world the Crown directors inhabit.

If a definition of corruption can be agreed upon–and it should go beyond strict legal strictures–it would be highly insightful to determine if levels of corruption between government and private sector, and within private sector organizations, have increased over the past thirty-five years. This marks the period since the first Hawke/Keating government began the institutionalization of neoliberalism, marking the dramatically increased influence of the large consultancy firms, plus the other already existing lobbying groups such as the IPA and the employer organizations. Simultaneously it began the weakening of the lobbying influence of the ACTU and some militant unions.

What this suggests is that neoliberalism, lobbying and corruption thrive together and that as an economic/social/political system, the former will always exacerbate the influence of the latter two.

Has the level of corruption and lobbying increased over the last three decades or is it simply much more conspicuous now, along with the level of corruption? Because of privatisation of education and the corporatization of the universities knowledge creation for persuasive purposes, ie. lobbying, is now largely in the hands of conservative think tanks, the consultancy firms and the employer organizations. Lobbying is a huge part of neoliberalism, in the sense that it is needed to convince the party duopoly–if not the general public to the extent it is interested–it is the only viable system and to blast the populace with models and statistics. Transparency International Australia in their 2018 Report state, “In 2012, Australia scored 85 out of 100. Today, in the latest CPI, Australia has slipped 8 points, receiving a score of 77, and remains outside the top 10 countries. Australia scored 79 in 2016.” This mainly relates to public sector corruption, but is still one useful measure.

Neoliberalism strongly blurs the distinction between public and private sector, with the usual processes such as the revolving door of appointments to regulatory bodies and government/private sector boards, the widespread use of the major consultancy firms to confirm government decisions and to spruik the benefits of deregulation in a trickle-down economy, and constant tax cuts for the wealthy. In conjunction with the strong emphasis on individualization and the weakening of social/community bonds, and the lionizing in the press of those individuals who have made their billions within this system, the capacity for individual self-aggrandizement by any means becomes inevitable.

In this sense corruption severely weakens society because it distorts income flows, investment decisions, planning schemes and, eventually, breaks down public trust in institutions, especially government institutions, but also financial and, increasingly now, religious institutions. Royal commissions have succeeded in exposing the levels of corruption and to some extent the causes, yet because of their legalistic nature they do not take the systemic view that is required if a full explanation is to be given.

I fear though that the general public will take the usual view that “all politicians are liars and corrupt.” They will not engage in the kind of pressure group activity that would see a commonwealth integrity commission armed with real teeth and a renewed evaluation of the different functions of the private and public sector, with the consideration that it is the cohesion of the country as a whole that is wholly desirable, not the enrichment of a few individuals.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. Formerly Reader in Sanskrit.

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