SAX INSTITUTE. How politicians who become lobbyists can be bad for our health

The steady flow of politicians and government staffers switching sides to lobby for powerful food, alcohol and gambling companies poses a serious threat to public health, experts warn in new research published by the Sax Institute.

The study in the September issue of Public Health Research & Practice finds that of the 560 people on the Australian Government Register of Lobbyists, 197 stated that they had formerly been a government representative. The study authors report on several examples of people working at senior levels of government going on to work directly for alcohol, food or gambling industries, often in areas directly related to their previous government role.

This so-called ‘revolving door’ between government and the food, alcohol and gambling industries favours industry interests by enhancing insider knowledge and providing access to policy makers through personal ties, the authors say.

“Industry’s privileged access to government threatens unbiased policy making and creates an imbalance between the influence of industry and evidence-based public health advocacy,” they write.

They point to continued delays in implementing alcohol warning labels and the lack of gambling reform despite strong public support as two areas where industry influence has undermined evidence-based public health policy.

“We urgently need a rethink on how we regulate this, and on how long former government officials should have to wait before moving on to lobbying roles,” said senior author Professor Peter Miller of the School of Psychology at Deakin University.

The study authors examined LinkedIn and lobbyist business websites to identify the previous roles in which the former government representatives worked. Of the 122 individuals whose job history was identified, most had held influential positions: 18 per cent had been a Member of Parliament or Senator and 47 per cent had been a Senior Advisor or Chief of Staff. The majority had spent more than 10 years in government prior to their roles as lobbyists.

A series of interviews was conducted with former and current politicians, staffers, journalists, public health advocates and a lobbyist about the influence of the alcohol, food and gambling industries on government policy.

“You see former politicians popping up in these lobbying organisations, and the only reason they’re employed is because they can wield influence,” explained one former politician who was interviewed in the study.

The study authors call for tighter and more robustly enforced regulations around “cooling-off periods” between government employment and lobbying roles. They note that although rules prevent federal ministers and parliamentary secretaries from lobbying in related areas for 18 months, these rules are poorly enforced. Other countries, they add, have considerably longer cooling-off periods, with both the United States and Canada adopting a five-year ban on administration officials.

The authors also call for bans on information-sharing by former government officials and a federal anti-corruption body to provide oversight and transparency.

The study is part of a special themed issue of Public Health Research & Practice on countering the so-called ‘commercial determinants of health’ – the web of marketing ploys and other approaches used by large companies to promote products and behaviours that harm human health.

First published on the Sax Institute website on 25 September 2019.

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