Repost: The scourge of special interests. John Menadue

Jan 7, 2014


Lobbying has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in Canberra. It now represents a growing and serious corruption of good governance and the development of sound public policy. In referring to the so called “public debate” on climate change Professor Ross Garnaut, highlighted the  ‘diabolical problem’ that special interests brought to bear on public discussion on that critical issue.

‘What is in it for me’ is not just a problem of self-interest by voters and consumers. That self-centredness has been taken to a high art form by powerful vested interests that extract monopoly rents at the expense of the national interest. The media and particularly News Ltd and the Australian Financial Review are part of this growing corporate influence and the propaganda that they bring to bear.

Look at some facts.

  • There are over 900 full time independent lobbyists working in Canberra. That is over 30 for every Cabinet minister. On top of these ‘third party’ lobbyists, there are the special interests who conduct their own lobbying, e.g. Australian Pharmacy Guild.
  • These lobbyists encompass a whole range of interests eg mining, clubs, hospitals, private health funds, business and hotels that have all successfully challenged government policy and the public interest. Just think what the Minerals Council of Australia did to subvert public discussion on the Super Profits Tax and the activities of Clubs Australia to thwart gambling reform? With its lobbying power over the major parties the hotel lobby effectively determines hotel operating hours in the states. Violence and crime are a clear result.
  • With journalism under-resourced, the media depends increasingly on the propaganda and promotion put into the public arena by these special interests The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS found in a survey of major metropolitan newspapers published in Australia in2010 that 55% of content was driven by public relations handouts from lobbyists and their associated public relations arms. 24% of the content of those metropolitan newspapers had no significant journalistic input whatsoever. It relied heavily on PR handouts.
  • The Media Council of Australia has just drawn attention to how media independence is increasingly compromised by ‘advertorials’, a deliberate confusing of advertising and editorial content. The Council also drew attention to trips financed by large corporations and organisations that were not disclosed. It’s not just travel companies that do this. Even the People’s Liberation Army of China provides trips for senior financial journalists to attend business conferences in China.
  • The health “debate” is really between the Minister and the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Pharmacy Guild, Medicines Australia and the Private Health Insurance companies. The debate is not with the public about health policy and strategy. It is about how the minister and her department manage the special interests.
  • Much of the policy skills in Canberra departments have been downgraded and much of the policy work is now in the hands of young staff in ministers’ offices that are much more inclined to listen to special interests.
  • Policy work within the government is now undertaken more in specialist organisations such as the Productivity Commission rather than in the departments. Departmental policy capability has been seriously denuded.

What can be done?

  • Lobbyists have to be registered with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but this is inadequate. They should also be obliged to promptly, publicly and accurately disclose the discussions and meetings that they have had with ministers, shadow ministers and senior public servants.
  • There should be a filtering mechanism such as the Economic Planning Advisory Committee which many years ago was an effective filter whereby special interests were forced to contend with wider community interests before advice went to ministers and departments.
  • All proposals by special interest groups must be accompanied by a public interest impact statement prepared by an independent and professional body This public impact statement would be attached to representations from the special interest group. Many of the major private consulting firms should be excluded from this process as many of them have shown themselves to be compromised in the interests of their clients.
  • Departments such as Health which are so influenced by special interests should have different governance arrangements. The traditional minister/departmental model in Health is a happy hunting ground for special interests that significantly influence outcomes in health. The Reserve Bank, composed of independent and professional persons has shown the benefit of such governance arrangements that keep special interests at bay and promote an informed public debate. We need such an arrangement in the health field particularly.
  • No minister or senior official should work with a special interest group that they have been associated with for at least five years after retirement or resignation.
  • There should be increased funding to the parliament to provide alternate public advice in key policy areas. The Parliamentary Budget Office is a good start. The policy vacuum that we presently have must be filled by independent and professional advisers. At the moment the policy vacuum is filled by special interests assisted in many cases by a compliant and under-resourced media.

These proposals may seem draconian. But I strongly believe that we face a very serious problem – the diabolical problem that Ross Garnaut has mentioned. Special interests are handsomely winning the day at the expense of the public interest. A push-back against special interests is urgent.

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