The Grattan Institute’s report on access and influence in Australian politics, ‘Who’s in the room?’, comes at a time when the reputation of politicians and the political system seems to be plumbing new depths.
The cynical view is that politics is driven largely by money provided by special interests, and that reform in the public interest is impossible as a consequence. From the perspective of public health, the battle against unhealthy products and their unrestrained advertising and promotion seems as tough as ever. Gambling, processed and junk food industries and alcohol, for example, seem quite able to persuade governments to let them do whatever they like. The Grattan Institute report reinforces these perceptions to a considerable degree. Happily, the authors offer a few remedies that, they suggest, might make a difference.
One of the most distressing facts to emerge from the report is that half of all political donations comes from 5% of donors. The concentration of influence is, clearly, profound. Case studies hint at what this can achieve. The work of the gambling lobby in overturning the pokie reforms proposed by Andrew Wilkie and adopted by the Gillard government is a case in point. As documented by James Panichi, the money that they spent was peanuts in comparison to the rivers of gold that flow into poker machines in Australia, particularly in NSW. Donations by ClubsNSW, for example, show how modest investments in individual politicians can produce big dividends. As, indeed, can hefty donations to political parties and to selected shadow Ministers.
But the real story to emerge is not that money buys influence. It probably does but, more importantly, it buys access. As the report’s title suggests, the real story here is how donations allow sectional interests to develop a relationship with politicians from which more subtle, and arguably far more persuasive, tactics of influence can emerge.
Most of us struggle to get into a Minister’s diary. Clearly, big donors aren’t so hindered. Whether it’s a meeting in the Ministerial office or an invitation to the football (and the lunch and drinks that accompany it), it’s clear that donations buy access. And the access, of course, is what it’s all about. We don’t know what’s discussed when a politician gets an invitation to dine with an important donor, an outstanding citizen (as Michael Yabsley, former Liberal Party fundraiser put it) or accompany a big bank to the football. They might talk about the football. I suspect they don’t limit themselves to such topics.
Once the relationship is established, it may well continue to provide benefits to both sides. The pathway for former politicians to end up working very quickly as a lobbyist or fixer for industry is well worn. Peter Reith landed a job with a defence industry actor after leaving his Ministerial job as defence minister. Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib both landed on their feet working for the Packer empire. Helen Coonan ended up as a Board Member of Crown, Packer’s casino. The list goes on. Of course, what they offer is access to mates – the former colleagues who won’t turn down a request for a meeting, the people inside the party machine who know how to get things done and the staffers who want advancement, and the sort of help that such great and good leaders can provide.
The big question is: if our democracy is tainted by these practices (and, as the Grattan Institute report suggests, it surely is) what can we do about it?
There are many options available. Better and more complete disclosure of donations would be a great start. The report suggests that $5,000 is a reasonable threshold. I disagree. Full disclosure and a donation cap of $5,000 would be more reasonable. Of course, public funding may have to increase to make up the shortfall, as adopted recently in Victoria. But that may be a price worth paying. Real time disclosure, or close to it, is long overdue. It can take well over a year for political donations to be reported via the current AEC system. That can and must change.
And the mates? Ministers should certainly face a lengthy prohibition on working for companies or organisations active in their portfolio areas, perhaps for up to five years. Other MPs might also be expected to stay away from vested interests for shorter periods, particularly if the taxpayer is funding their pension. It might even be worthwhile paying them a salary for a while after they leave Parliament, in order to stop them working for industries that want to influence their mates who are still MPs.
As far as knowing who’s in the room, Ministerial diaries need to be publicly available. There is no reason to keep these a secret. And the rule should extend to people met while enjoying the hospitality that politicians regularly enjoy. And while we’re at it, everyone with a Parliament House pass who has access to political actors (whether they work for a lobbyist, or lobby directly for a company or industry body) should be subject to the lobbyist register and its requirements, which should actually be enforced.
Of course, penalties associated with all of this should be serious. A Federal Commission against Corruption is long overdue, to police these issues and make sure the interests of the public are protected at all points along the road to influence. They might even teach politicians and their staff about ethics, as the Grattan Institute report suggests.
But, as the report mentions, there are lots of ways that industry influences politics, including using research to bolster a dodgy argument or resist reform. The gambling industry is expert at this. Just like tobacco and alcohol before them, it commissions research based on spurious premises and uses it to make sure things stay as they are. Often, it uses consulting firms and others happy to give the client the results they want. But, in my own field, many gambling (and other) researchers continue to ignore the lessons of tobacco and take industry money. In return for this, they help industry to corrupt the evidence base for policy reform and do their best to limit the range of options available for government to act on regulation of harmful products. This is an issue of great moment for gambling research at present, but it extends to food, agriculture, mining and many other industries. The cost of this to national wellbeing is immense.
It may be that our politicians are decent, exercise their power with the best interests of the community at heart and are not influenced by favours or promises or overtures from their mates. Hopefully, most are like that. But it’s clear that for many, politics is a way to use influence for their own ends, rather than for the good of the people who elect them. The Grattan Institute has done us a great service by cataloguing these issues. Cleaning up our politics is a critical step towards making our democracy genuine and engaging the many who currently see it as a futile waste of time.
Charles Livingstone works at the School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Monash University.