MICHAEL THORN. Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics. The revolving door.

Sep 27, 2018

Those searching for remedies to the parlous state of Australian politics and public policy-making might dwell on this claim by the Grattan Institute: “…more than one-quarter of politicians go onto post-politics jobs for special interests, where their relationships can help open doors”.  It’s a jobs highway. 

The movement of politicians and their advisers between political offices and the special interests that constantly buzz around governments is disturbing, but highly normalised. There is a wealth of information about this and a growing body of scientific literature attesting to its damaging effects to Australia’s democracy.

A new Grattan Institute report Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics is a welcome addition to this literature. The report shows how ‘Well-resourced interests – such as big business, unions and not-for-profits – use money, resources and relationships to influence policy to serve their interests, at times at the expense of the public interest’. The authors, Wood, Griffiths and Chivers, have undertaken a commendable job in documenting and analysing this world of political influence. They have nicely described the problem and made some useful suggestions to tip the balance back towards the public interest.

However, these recommendations, framed as they are by a view that Australia’s political institutions are ‘generally robust’, are rather weak and certainly not revolutionary. They propose publishing ministerial diaries, improving the disclosure of political donations, linking holders of Federal Parliament ‘orange passes’ to the official lobbyist register and establishing a federal integrity or anti-corruption body to investigate misconduct and corruption. None is novel or really new.

The strength of Grattan’s work is the analysis which shows, among other things, that the more heavily regulated a sector, the more influencers are engaged to advance that sector’s interests.

Importantly Wood, Griffiths and Chivers document the repeated flaunting of rules that are supposed to stem the movement of former politicians to lobbyist roles. “The Ministerial Standards are merely administrative – former ministers who move straight into a lobbying position are breaking the rules, not the law. There is currently no punishment for breaking the rules except loss of ministerial duties, which is of little consequence to a former minister.”

The cavalier attitude of some of these politicians towards these standards is gob-smacking and reveals a shallow view of ethical behaviour, no better exemplified than by former Small Business Minister Bruce Bilson who took a job with Franchise Council of Australia (FCA) and collected a salary while still a member of Parliament. As they say, it is clear that “Existing checks and balances on lobbying activities in Australia are weak and poorly enforced”.

A few weeks ago Professor Quentin Beresford launched his latest book Adani and the War Over Coal. This book is a catalogue of the sins of influence and a wonderful case study of all the problems identified in the Grattan Report. However not a single mainstream media outlet, not even the ‘quality press’, has reviewed this important book, a book that Jack Waterford, the former long-serving editor of The Canberra Times, described as a ‘political thriller – with an outrage on every page’! I note this because Beresford is an award winning author, a Walkley Award finalist and a winner of the 2015 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize for The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd.

Adani traces the disturbing case of efforts by governments, the coal industry and other vested interests to establish one of the world’s biggest coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin in the face of Australia-wide opposition and the existential threat the mine poses to the Great Barrier Reef. This is not a poorly written book – rather it is a ripping yarn of political intrigue, powerful business interests, a foreign-owned company with a dubious record and insider relationships all working against the public interest; and worthy of being brought to the public’s attention.

Get Up and environment groups have fought against the Carmichael mine for years, but it was only when these groups coalesced around #StopAdani that they were able to dissuade banks from providing finance for the mine – notably against the wishes of both the Commonwealth and Queensland governments. It is clear Australia’s political institutions are far from robust and arguably captured far too often by the cargo-cult mentality that exists around Australia’s mining industry. Beresford’s book comprehensively catalogues how this has occurred in the case of Adani. So why wouldn’t the book be reviewed?

Well, at the very least, poor judgment by some editors and by others perhaps a deliberate attempt not to give oxygen to revelations this book so remarkable describes and which run counter to the publication’s support of mining in the Galilee Basin.

The point being that the nature of the problem of influence in Australian politics goes well beyond an industrious cohort of influencers, former politicians or not, and to the power of corporations and their intersection with the political system. A hackneyed but useful aphorism about self-interest is: ‘put your money on it because at least you know it will be trying’. I used this cliché in a recent discussion with a research colleague who was trying to understand why alcohol interests are so persistent in their efforts to win concessions from government in the face of overwhelming evidence that alcohol causes unimaginable harm to too many Australians. My point being capital is highly motivated.

No more so than for addictive industries such as junk food, alcohol, tobacco and gambling. These are all highly regulated industries, which spend inordinate amounts of time and money lobbying governments. At the PHAA Health Prevention Conference in Sydney (2-4 May 2018) it was reported the tobacco industry employs 20 direct and 14 indirect lobbyists, alcohol 43 and 23, junk food, 33 and 13, and gambling 31 and 16.

These industries place a high value on their relationships with governments and the political class more generally. They need to because of the magnitude of the harm they cause and the risk of governments placing restraints on their activities.

As Stephen Wilks, the author of The Political Power of the Business Corporation, says:

“The business corporation is a work of genius. It has harnessed material resources, technology and organisation, mobilised by human imagination and innovation, to create wealth and mass prosperity unimaginable to earlier generations. In the process it has unleashed less attractive aspects of human ambition including greed, dominance and lust for status, but at least these baser impulses have operated through peaceful commerce. Its sheer success means that it has become a constituent feature of contemporary political life, omnipresent, often unremarked, but powerful enough to dictate political choices.”

Unremarkably, it is self-serving. But corporate excesses have caused much public angst. The exposure of tax-avoiding behaviour, persistent rent seeking, abuse of power and the denial of scientific evidence are weakening the credibility of corporations and presenting opportunities to tilt things at least slightly back towards the public interest.

The recommendations made in Who’s in the room to curtail the unhealthy relationship between the corporate sector and politics will help – a little. However, more fundamental change is required.

Standing commissions of inquiry, with Royal Commission-like powers, to combat the problems of regulatory capture and counter the inevitable re-emergence of corporate influence should be considered.

Grattan’s ‘boosting of countervailing voices’ recommendation needs to be boosted. Public interest groups need to be seeded with public funds. My own organisation is a useful example of what can be achieved.

Greater government transparency is needed. FOI laws must function as intended and those who (public servants) hinder their operation brought to book.

Vested interests should be excluded from public policy-making. That means coal miners should not be involved in developing climate change policy and, as the World Health Organisation recommends, the alcohol industry should not be involved in the making of alcohol policy.

As I have previously written, Wilks has a long prescription for reform and at its heart is the need for a new relationship between corporations and government. He accepts that “the exercise of corporate power is an everyday feature of life in advanced industrial societies”. He argues for broad change ranging from the incremental, through revolutionary to institutional change.

But first, it will require different people to be in the room.

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

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