Australian public policy is now routinely moulded to suit the interests of the highest corporate bidders and the lobbyists who represent their interests.
In the late 1950s, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills documented the activities of what he called ‘the power elite’ in the United States and its remarkable ability to shape regulatory, legislative and infrastructure decisions to suit its own interests. A few years later, the realist political scientist E.E. Schattschneider punctured the pretences of pluralist political theorists by convincingly demonstrating that business and upper class interests are routinely favoured throughout the American political system which ‘is skewed, loaded and unbalanced in favor of a fraction of a minority.’ In the late 1970s, Schattschneider’s younger colleague, Charles Lindblom, wrote about the dominance of business interests in government policy-making, and the routine ability of powerful corporations to veto efforts at reform that don’t directly benefit them.
Although the US political system has far more checks and balances than those that exist in Australia, despite the extensive documentation of this influence by American academics over more than six decades, the situation there has only gotten worse. Here in Australia, four decades of neoliberal and neoconservative dominance of mainstream politics has almost completely deracinated the ability of citizens to hold the powerful to account about any issue.
Contrary to the sanguine views of my colleagues at the Grattan Institute, it is not just ‘sometimes’ that ‘bad policy is made … because powerful groups have more say and sway than they should’. Their equally sanguine belief that ‘Australia’s political institutions are generally robust’ is similarly questionable.
According to academic George Rennie, ‘[Australian] law makes it almost impossible to prosecute corruption, owing to difficulties with investigation, evidentiary rules and the burden of proof.’
In support of Rennie’s observation, one has only to look at the increasing frequency of political scandals relating to poor governance, conflicts of interest, maladministration and corruption within state and federal Coalition governments to see just how bad the situation has become in Australia. It would seem that members of the Coalition no longer feel any obligation to explain or even excuse the behaviour of any colleague accused of unethical or illegal activities. Indeed, their willingness to even acknowledge such activities appears to be inversely proportional to the seriousness of the offences concerned.
Hollow words and defanged institutions
To ensure such pesky considerations provide no obstacles to its (mal)administration, the Coalition has eviscerated and further hollowed out the investigative and regulatory bodies that could hold it to account, leaving us with no protection from its whims, incompetence, venality and bad faith. Starving the watchdogs is a favoured strategy of corporate political shills in the US, and one which has been faithfully emulated by the Coalition here in Australia.
To name but a handful of recent examples of the Coalition’s antipathy to accountability in the face of overwhelming evidence of culpability: there is NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrotet’s continuing efforts to avoid responsibility for the ICare debacle; NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s and former NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin’s pork-barrelling of Coalition electorate funding during the 2019 election campaign; Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s refusal to reveal his office’s role in the ‘sports rorts’ affair; and last but by no means least, Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s mysterious inability to acknowledge the source of his public misrepresentations of travel expenditure by Sydney City Council.
On these and many other issues over the last several years, state and federal members of the Australian Labor Party, Australian Greens, Shooters and Fishers Party and independents have sought to hold the feet of Coalition politicians to the fire. But nothing seems to touch these servants of crony capitalism and the rapacious and authoritarian brand of right-wing politics that the Liberal and National parties currently embrace.
In the not-so-recent past, all of these scandals would have involved immediate sackings and/or the resignations of those involved. Instead, we are now subjected to a nauseatingly familiar set of talking points from the Coalition playbook. Deny that there was any problem in the first place. Dissemble about who was responsible if the evidence of malfeasance is overwhelming. Deflect the criticism back onto the critics and victims if things are starting to look ugly for the perpetrators.
Combined with a largely servile corporate media that fails to consistently hold the Coalition accountable for its many transgressions of public standards and Australian law, we might well ask ourselves: has conventional politics in Australia become so debased that the vast majority of its citizens now occupy a space of complete political irrelevance?
Thanks to former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull (who now appears to regret what he did) media ownership is now even more concentrated than it was before the Coalition was returned to power in 2013. Further emboldened by these legislative changes, Ubu Roi Rupert Murdoch and his media flunkies appear more dedicated than ever to marginalize and denigrate any efforts to hold the Coalition to account in any context on any issue, while repaying the Australian people for their generous support of his media empire by shutting down most of NewsCorp’s regional newspapers. Meanwhile, Nine Entertainment placates the dulled sensibilities of Morrison’s ‘quiet Australians’ through its streaming services and hollowed out news and current affairs coverage, and Kerry Stokes ensures that Seven West Media promotes the views of those same ‘quiet Australians’ while scrupulously avoiding any public revelations concerning his many conflicts of interest.
The Coalition and its corporate masters clearly think we are a bunch of passive, reactive and self-interested plebs: they’ll never allow us to have any influence over anything important, so we should just shut up and let them do their thing.
But who does have influence in this debased political environment?
As John Menadue, Charles Livingstone, Ian Dunlop, Michael Thorn, Danielle Woods, Kate Griffiths, Sandi Keane, Simone Marsh, Michael West and I have been documenting on this website and elsewhere, the extent to which government decision-making has been captured by corporate interests is shocking, scandalous and almost certainly unprecedented in modern Australian history.
Shocking, scandalous and unprecedented
Why is it shocking, scandalous and unprecedented?
It’s shocking and scandalous because Australian public policy is now routinely moulded to suit the interests of the highest corporate bidders and the lobbyists who represent their interests.
It’s unprecedented because estimates of how much money was spent on lobbying by Australian peak bodies and advocacy groups in 2015-16 ranged from $400 million to $700 million. After analysing the financial statements of twenty of Australia’s major business lobbies, Michael West found almost $2 billion had been spent by them on lobbying between 2014 and 2017.
Research on lobbying in the US from more than ten years ago found that for every US$1 spent, the return on investment can be as high as US$220. This certainly accords with Cameron Murray and Paul Fritjers’ findings in Game of Mates (2017), and another study by US economists which found that 65% of Australia’s billionaires owe their wealth to political favours.
According to the federal lobbyist register (which is itself inadequate for various reasons), there are currently 571 lobbyists currently working the halls of the Australian Parliament. More than 200 of them are former government representatives, including 25 former politicians and more than 40 former political staffers who worked for ministers. This time last year, there were 884 lobbyists working for 279 firms on behalf of 3,691 clients. Although COVID may have had a deleterious (?) effect on Australia’s lobbying industry, readers should not get their hopes up. The actual number of federal lobbyists is more like 2,400.
That’s more than ten lobbyists for each of the 227 current members of Federal Parliament.
As George Rennie noted in an article responding to former federal ministers Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop taking jobs for defence and international aid contractors within weeks of leaving public office, ‘The philosophical basis for prohibiting a minister from taking positions like Bishop’s and Pyne’s rests on three basic problems: the potential for bias, unfair access to former colleagues or subordinates, and the insider information a decision-maker has gained from their former role.’
You can trust ‘us’, right?
However, unregulated lobbying is but one of the systemic problems currently undermining Australia’s democratic institutions.
Thanks to changes in donation disclosure thresholds introduced by the Coalition’s much-loved ‘lying rodent’ John Howard, the political parties don’t have to declare the sources of any donations under $14,300, or to aggregate donations from single donors, or to declare the source of donations from so-called ‘associated entitities’.
The Centre for Public Integrity recently reported that the major parties have received more than $1 billion in undisclosed income since 1999. That constituted about 40% of the Coalition’s income over two decades and about 28% of Labor’s income over the same period, or 36% of total party financing.
In other words, we as citizens have no way of knowing from where one-third of the major parties’ revenue originated. Organized crime syndicates, the fossil fuel and gambling industries, and hostile foreign governments could all have been funnelling dirty money through Labor and the Liberals, and the public would be none the wiser.
What we do know is that in 2018-19, the Liberals declared income of $165 million, and Labor, $126 million. Over the two financial years between 2015 and 2017, both parties received more than $100 million in donations from undisclosed sources.
In the second largest single donation in Australia’s political history, the Liberal Party received $4.1 million from a Sydney property developer prior to the 2019 election. The same story in The Guardian reports that in the lead up to the same election, oil and gas giant Woodside gave $135,400 to Labor, $136,750 to the Liberals, and $11,190 to the Nationals. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the fossil fuel industry’s declared donations to the major parties during the election were $1.89 million.
But how on earth could anyone possibly think that Clive Palmer’s ‘donation’ of $83.3 million to the Palmer United Party for a nationwide advertising blitz to trash-talk Labor could possibly have an effect on the outcome of the last Federal Election? Or that Malcolm Turnbull’s donation of $1.75 million to the Liberal Party from his personal fortune might have influenced the outcome of the 2016 Federal Election (which he narrowly won!). By the same token, why would anyone believe that the Tasmanian gaming industry’s donation of $400,000 to the Tasmanian Liberal Party could possibly affect its policies regarding the future of poker machines? Or that the $17.5 million spent by the Minerals Council of Australia was actually effective at ensuring Kevin Rudd’s super mining profits tax never saw the light of day?
Clearly, the Coalition has zero interest in addressing any of these issues.
The one political party that could make a significant difference in changing the current situation is the ALP. However, it has not covered itself in glory on this issue. Even though it has voted in the Senate to support federal legislation to establish a national integrity commission with teeth, it has blocked the Greens’ efforts to establish better controls and more transparency around political donations at the state and federal levels. Until it gets its own house in order on these issues, none of this legislation has any hope of passing through Federal Parliament, and the unedifying spectacle of the routine abuse of power will continue.
What needs to be done
So what can we do about all this as concerned citizens?
We can start by demanding that our parliaments are reconvened and empowered to once again scrutinize the activities of sitting governments, as Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths recently argued on this website in response to current curbs on democracy under COVID.
We can familiarize ourselves with the eminently sensible recommendations for political reform proposed by John Menadue, The Australia Institute, the Grattan Institute, Michael West Online and NGOs like the Accountability Roundtable and the Centre for Public Integrity, as well as academics like George Rennie, John Mikler, and Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters.
We can educate ourselves about the lobbying rules in place in Australia and some of our closest political allies, which are, in general, far weaker than those in Canada and the US, for example.
Most importantly, we can get involved with our friends, families and colleagues to build the political momentum for real and lasting change. We need to build a national coalition of NGOs and other interested parties to push for strong, uniform, national laws concerning lobbying, political donations, electoral campaign expenditure, revolving door appointments, post-political and public service employment for senior officials, and an independent national integrity commission. That commission needs to have the powers to retrospectively investigate cases of suspected malfeasance and corruption, and to hold other government agencies to account for their inaction or failure to meet their own fiduciary and fiscal duties.