MICHAEL THORN. More about rent seekers and lobbyists.

Sep 22, 2017

There is nothing new in stories about ‘jobs for the boys’ .Both sides of politics are equally guilty. What is surprising is that the practice endures despite the frequent media stories and the public’s obvious disgust.  Behind the appointment of a new leadership team at Tourism Australia by Tourism Minister Ciobo lies another egregious example of this; ‘you rub my back and I will give you a nice sinecure’ practice.   

A struggling Commonwealth Government internship program was given a huge leg-up through a partnership with the Western Australian branch of the Australian Hotels Association (AHA).  Criticism of the program in the lead up to the AHA announcement had in fact been severe. In July, Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Ged Kearney, said the program offered no path to qualification, employment or workforce protection, and claimed, “This is a government-sanctioned program that actually borders on slavery”. Likewise Labor and the Greens have been steadfast in their opposition to the program, which appeared in danger of failing before the AHA came to the rescue.

Last month the AHA (WA) Chief Executive, Bradley Woods, was shaking hands with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Michaelia Cash at the doorstop to announce the details of PaTH’s expansion. But that’s now in the past. Woods waved off criticism that the scheme is nothing more than a cheap labour scheme; the next minute he’s unwrapping his own personal gift – an appointment to the Board of Tourism Australia.

Of course it always helps to have friends in high places. At the doorstop the PM said, “Bradley, I want to thank you for you and all your members for the support that you are showing”.  It would appear that debt has now been settled.

And while Governments of every political persuasion are guilty of giving away jobs for the boys and girls, rarely do the rewards flow so freely and so fast.

This case is worthy of greater scrutiny. The AHA, both at the state and national level, is one of the country’s most powerful lobby groups and wields enormous influence. It peddles what is widely regarded as Australia’s most toxic drug, a drug which is responsible for more than 5,500 deaths annually, 160,000 hospitalisations and untold levels of family disruption.

Announcing the appointment on 5 September, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Steven Ciobo, said he was pleased to welcome Bradley to the Board.  The announcement was seemingly prompted by questions from The Guardian’s Melissa Davey following rumours that the chairman and deputy chairman of Tourism Australia were about to be dumped in favour of Woods.

Now, there will be those who argue that someone with 25-years as a hotel industry lobbyist is perfectly qualified to take his seat on the Tourism Australia Board.  But a far better question would be, what is the breadth of experience on the current Board, and have we got the balance right?  Should Tourism Australia’s focus be on selling hotel rooms, or would the taxpayers dollars be better spent marketing the products that make up the Australian ‘experience’; the thing, after all, that makes our nation a unique tourism destination?

One of Tourism Australia’s Board members unquestionably had a great deal of experience in selling and marketing those unique Australian ‘experiences’.  Andrew Fairley AM, an expert in nature-based tourism, only recently retired as Chair of Parks Victoria after six years of service and is the former Chair of Zoos Victoria.  As the Deputy Chair of Tourism Australia, he was tipped to become the next Chair.  Now he’s gone.  In ‘Board’ speak and in the language of Ciobo’s media release, he has ‘retired’. In truth, he was pushed. Had he fallen out of favour, and why?

It might help to take a closer look at the Tourism Minister. Steven Ciobo has proven himself a good friend of the alcohol industry. In August last year, Ciobo told the Australian Liquor Stores Association (ALSA) Conference that it was traffic, not alcohol, causing assaults to rise. He urged liquor retailers to push back against moves to regulate the industry.

Which is why, as disappointing as it is to see the Board of Tourism Australia diminished with the ‘retirement’ of Andrew Fairley, in truth we cannot say it is very surprising.  As Chair of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, and with a steadfast commitment to stop the harm from alcohol, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr Fairley finds himself on the outer and out of favour. Fairley has been forthright in his criticism of the influence alcohol industry interests have over government policy making.

The net result is a highly qualified tourism industry insider gets booted from the Tourism Australia Board, where he was also likely to have had a moderating influence on those who want to market Australia as a booze destination, in favour of one who clearly has a vested interest in such marketing. We are left in no doubt that the alcohol industry’s connections to government have been responsible for Fairley’s punting from the Board of Tourism Australia to be replaced by a leading industry lobbyist.

This case has received no scrutiny, no media coverage, no questions in Parliament, nothing. What it has done is strengthen the case for a Federal ICAC. At the moment these ‘little’ incidents seem unremarkable, but in the overall scheme of things it is another example of the erosion of good government in this country. A Federal ICAC might go some way to addressing this decay.

Michael Thorn is Chief Executive, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education

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