Lobbyland: ten lobbyists for every MP has democracy on life support

by | Jan 19, 2021 | Business

The resources industry donated $136.8 million over two decades to Australian political parties. Donations buy a lot of influence, with research showing that for every US$1 spent, the return on investment can be as high as US$220. In return, public policy is routinely moulded to suit the highest corporate bidders and their lobbyists. Adam Lucas investigates.

Forty years of neoliberal and neoconservative dominance of mainstream politics have just about destroyed the ability of citizens to hold the powerful to account.

As noted by academic George Rennie, ‘[Australian] law makes it almost impossible to prosecute corruption, owing to difficulties with investigation, evidentiary rules and the burden of proof.’

For evidence one has only to look at the increasing frequency of political scandals relating to poor governance, conflicts of interest, maladministration and corruption within state and federal Coalition. Yet Coalition MPs no longer feel any obligation to explain or even excuse behaviour involving unethical or illegal activities.

​A handful of recent scandals

Here is just a handful of recent examples of the Coalition’s antipathy to accountability in the face of overwhelming evidence of culpability:

Hollow words and defanged institutions

To ensure there are no obstacles to its (mal)administration, the Coalition has eviscerated and further hollowed out the investigative and regulatory bodies that could hold it to account, leaving us with no protection from its whimsincompetencevenality and bad faith.

Starving the watchdogs, a favoured strategy in the US, is one that the Coalition has faithfully emulated here in Australia.

In the not-so-recent past, all the above scandals would have involved immediate sackings and/or the resignations of those involved. Instead, we are now subjected to a nauseatingly familiar set of talking points from the Coalition playbook.

Combined with a largely servile corporate media, we might well ask ourselves: has conventional politics in Australia become so debased that the vast majority of its citizens are completely irrelevant politically?

Thanks to former communications minister Malcolm Turnbull (who now appears to regret what he did) media ownership is now even more concentrated than it was before the Coalition was returned to power in 2013.

Rupert Murdoch and his media flunkies appear more dedicated than ever to marginalize any efforts to hold the Coalition to account on any issue, while repaying the Australian people for their generous support of his media empire by shutting down most of NewsCorp’s regional newspapers.

Nine Entertainment placates the dulled sensibilities of Morrison’s ‘quiet Australians’ through its hollowed out news and current affairs coverage, and Kerry Stokes ensures that Seven West Media promotes the views of those same ‘quiet Australians’ while scrupulously avoiding any public revelations concerning his many conflicts of interest.

Corporate capture of decision-making

The extent to which government decision-making has been captured by corporate interests is shocking, scandalous and almost certainly unprecedented in modern Australian history.

It’s shocking and scandalous because Australian public policy is now routinely moulded to suit the interests of the highest corporate bidders and the lobbyists who represent their interests.

It’s unprecedented because estimates of how much money was spent on lobbying by Australian peak bodies and advocacy groups in 2015-16 ranged from $400 million to $700 million. After analysing the financial statements of 20 of Australia’s major business lobbies, Michael West found almost $2 billion had been spent by them on lobbying between 2014 and 2017.

Corporate lobbying a billion dollar business

Research on lobbying in the US from more than 10 years ago found that for every US$1 spent, the return on investment can be as high as US$220. This accords with Cameron Murray and Paul Fritjers’ findings in Game of Mates (2017), and another study by US economists which found that 65% of Australia’s billionaires owe their wealth to political favours.

According to the federal lobbyist register (which is itself inadequate), there are 571 lobbyists working the halls of the Australian Parliament. More than 200 are former government representatives, including 25 former politicians and more than 40 former political staffers who worked for ministers. This time last year, there were 884 lobbyists working for 279 firms on behalf of 3,691 clients. The actual number of federal lobbyists is more like 2,400. That’s more than 10 lobbyists for each of the 227 current members of Federal Parliament.

You can trust ‘us’, right?

Thanks to changes in donation disclosure thresholds introduced by John Howard, the political parties don’t have to declare the sources of any donations under $14,300, or to aggregate donations from single donors, or to declare the source of donations from so-called ‘associated entities’.

The Centre for Public Integrity reported that the major parties have received more than $1 billion in undisclosed income since 1999. That constituted about 40% of the Coalition’s income over two decades and about 28% of Labor’s income over the same period, or 36% of total party financing.

In other words, we citizens have no way of knowing from where one-third of the major parties’ revenue originated. Organized crime syndicates, the fossil fuel and gambling industries, and hostile foreign governments could have been funnelling dirty money through Labor and the Liberals, and the public would be none the wiser.

What we do know is that in 2018-19, the Liberals declared income of $165 million and Labor $126 million. Over the two financial years between 2015 and 2017, both parties received more than $100 million in donations from undisclosed sources.

In the second largest single donation in Australia’s political history, the Liberal Party received $4.1 million from a Sydney property developer before the 2019 election. In the lead up to the same election, oil and gas giant Woodside gave $135,400 to Labor, $136,750 to the Liberals, and $11,190 to the Nationals. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, the fossil fuel industry’s declared donations to the major parties during the election were $1.89 million.

Then there was Clive Palmer’s donation’ of $83.3 million to the Palmer United Party for a nationwide advertising blitz to trash-talk Labor. Malcolm Turnbull’s donation of $1.75 million to the Liberal Party from his personal fortune. Surely that couldn’t have influenced the outcome of the 2016 Federal Election (which he narrowly won!). And why would anyone believe that the Tasmanian gaming industry’s donation of $400,000 to the Tasmanian Liberal Party could possibly affect its policies regarding the future of poker machines? Or that the $17.5 million spent by the Minerals Council of Australia ensured Kevin Rudd’s super mining profits tax never saw the light of day?

While the Coalition has zero interest in tackling any of these issues, unfortunately, the ALP has not covered itself in glory. Even though it has voted in the Senate to support federal legislation to establish a national integrity commission with teeth, it has blocked the Greens’ efforts to establish better controls and more transparency around political donations at the state and federal levels.

Peas in a pod: Labor, Coalition join forces to weaken political donation laws

What needs to be done

We can start by demanding that our parliaments are empowered to once again scrutinize the activities of sitting governments; we can familiarize ourselves with the eminently sensible recommendations for political reform; and we can get involved to build the political momentum for lasting change to push for strong, uniform, national laws concerning lobbyingpolitical donationselectoral campaign expenditurerevolving door appointments and an independent national integrity commission.

This is an edited version of an article first published on Pearls and Irritations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Lucas

Adam Lucas

Dr Adam Lucas is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Adam’s contemporary research focuses on energy policy responses to anthropogenic climate change and obstacles to a sustainable energy transition. He is particularly interested in processes of innovation and the democratization of technological decision-making. Prior to taking up his current position at UoW, he worked for a number of years as a researcher and policy analyst for the New South Wales Government in The Cabinet Office, State and Regional Development, Aboriginal Affairs and Housing. Readers interested in his academic publications can find them here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Adam_Lucas and here: https://uow.academia.edu/AdamLucas You can follow Adam on Twitter @dradamlucas.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    If Australians got together and donated $1 each per year, we could buy our own government.

  2. Avatar

    Indeed, public funding of political parties’ election campaigns is estimated to pay for about two-thirds of the cost of running a ‘reasonable’ campaign. We ought immediately double that public funding, and lock-in CPI indexation. Then we could insist that the parties and candidates not accept funding from commercial interests (maybe a $100 total cap per person)… or eventually look to outlaw all outside payments to politicians. We don’t allow anyone to pay money to judges, and they only administer the law – why not put similar restrictions upon those who write the laws. Just like judges, we would be better off if politicians were well-paid, and had a good superannuation – all of which were at risk if they accepted money from anyone… plus time in jail for breaking Federal law.

    • Avatar

      Laws are a way of making some wealthy, often at the expense of the many.
      Athens had a way with those who proposed laws….!

  3. Avatar

    We need a Federal ICAC.
    We need the 5 eyes to provide details of all foreign bank accounts held by politicians and their families

  4. Avatar

    Surely we have the technologies now to be able to do away with political parties? All Independent MP’s who could elect a Cabinet and PM between them? Many separate people would be harder to bribe! We all want our MP’s to represent us but right now they don’t…they represent party interests, and we get left behind.
    The fact that our MP’s can act so arrogantly now, without even bothering to explain bad management is a laughable situation. Would you employ a person who you pay well, but who takes perks for himself, and puts his own interests before yours….and blatantly keeps doing it right under your nose? Of course you wouldn’t…You would sack him. We need to do that now. We need to think outside the square…find a new model that works better.

  5. Avatar

    And Australians are “forced” to vote at elections….or pay a find…. For me / us it has been a privilege to go to the ballot, incl the local council elections which are not mandatory… BUT the outcome is disappointing, again and again… so really why do we bother?
    The Game is really stacked against the people, isn’t it? Regardless of whom you would prefer to see in “power” as I can’t remember one MP in saying NO thank you to any big donation..OR changing laws that would “hurt” a particular business…. so we are all kidding
    ourselves with our so called Democracy and people for the people by the people???? It has been talked about before, maybe its
    really time to bring some ordinary people into Parliament… even on a say 6 month period…..to get some common sense and honest decision making back on the table… and first I would cut out “question time” as it now stands, it is nothing but a kindergarten show at the moment and a waste of time and money. Only IMO of course

    • Avatar

      Sortition is the only solution IMHO. Even a mixed member proportional representation would be a great improvement.

  6. Avatar

    Horrible story of power, privilege and corrupting influence of money, in Lobby-Land. In Australia it is political money-bubble land, that is failing to cope with issues of global and climate systems collapse. I re-read an article with quotes from David Graeber’s mockery about his “Bullshit jobs” today – https://medium.com/philonomist/david-graeber-on-capitalisms-best-kept-secret-704f13914a88. It strikes me that politicians jobs in Australia are now most entirely handed out to those most consistant at the generation of bullshit. They are place holder pawns of Corperations, Wealth and Lobbyists who pull their strings. They are small knobbly cogs in the global megamachine. Parliamentary sessions are a bullshit waffle show to obscure the real goings on.
    The political handling of Australia’s current Covid emergencies is driven by advice from people connected to real jobs. Actual health administrators and communicators, mostly annonymous. Bullshit politicians are there take the credit ratings. Fighting the recent bushfire crisis was organised by public support networks and volunteers, and as such their resources are still charity – basket case. Political jobs here in Australia are to pass on the orders, to take official lobbyist and money dictation, and ensure special interests are not harmed.
    In the case of global climate emergency the chief political bullshit job is block all possible action, since foreign mining interests are the most special of all. Money makes it above board, so it cannot be harmful “foreign influence”, excepting for the large amounts of the money going under the board.
    The biggest bullshit making jobs in Australia are the daily blurtings of the Murdoch press, with spin output, nonsense and distractions to keep the chief political bullshitters in office. The events show now happening in the USA Capitol, are pointing to an expression of end stages of global national bullshit pie of dysfunctional currupt political apparatus.
    The Corporate Military Complex pushers and string pullers are feeling their on-coming global Limits to Growth Issues. Nation States and their bonfires of collapsing global business are the burning and melting entities of this 21st Century. Since our systems only feed on dense forms of energy and mineral resources, their eventual collapse is pre-ordained. It is bullshit to pretend otherwise, that their is some other path not followed that leads back to some sort of stability.
    The USA democracy protestors are pretty much portrayed as bullshit basket cases themselves by the media. We should give them credit, for thinking that politicians should be measured against higher standards. As all standards are falling, the media more often fail their duty to describe the epidemic of bullshit leadership that has inspired such widespread systemically thorough disrepect.
    I apologize for the length of bullshit that will be percieved by these words, for bullshit is now found almost everywhere, and can’t be removed or unseen.

    • Avatar

      Regarding ‘Corporate Military Complex pushers and string pullers are feeling their on-coming global Limits to Growth Issues’; think you may find they donated to those who cooked up LtoG ‘theory’ or PR construct masquerading as science.

      Was promoted and/or launched via the fossil fuel/auto supported Club of Rome, influenced by Malthus, who unwittingly informed the eugenics movement or socio-Darwinism that blames mostly poor and/or different people for any societal negatives.

      Still….. in Australia the fossil fuel, auto and mining sectors avoid any sensible environmental constraints or innovation to ensure future incomes, but instead our ‘media’, MPs and wealthy influencers blame ‘immigrants’ and ‘population growth’…….

  7. Avatar

    politicians come cheap – last I looked $100K donation to government bought approval for a $3B project for private profit

    so that looks like a return on investment of … oh like 30,000 times …

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