The influence game: How to access power in Australia

The influence game: How to access power in Australia

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September 24, 2018 06:38:53

How do you get your foot in the door to see the people in power? Donations, freebies and jobs after politics seem to help.

In the past three years, nearly 70 per cent of federal ministers and shadow ministers have accepted corporate hospitality, which can be anything from a lavish lunch, to tickets to the AFL grand final, to airline lounge memberships.

More than a quarter of senior and assistant ministers took jobs with special interests after leaving politics, many in the industries they used to regulate.

And major business donors to political parties in government are more likely to get access to senior ministers.

“Australian politics has a money problem,” a new report from the Grattan Institute detailing these findings says.

“Who’s in the room … matters for policy outcomes.

“Powerful groups have triumphed over the national interest in many recent debates.”

The Grattan Institute report, Who’s in the Room? Access and influence in Australian politics, found multi-billion-dollar industries whose profits can be heavily affected by government regulation, such as mining, property, gambling, finance and transport, seem to get the most meetings.

It supports calls for a new national integrity commission after comparing donations, ministerial access, lobbying and policy outcomes.

Who gets the freebies?

Politicians often get free air travel, free sporting and concert tickets or other gifts which they must declare.

Some 68 per cent of ministers and shadow ministers have declared corporate hospitality.

Some 52 ministers or shadow ministers were corporate guests at events, averaging four events each, while 25 took corporate-sponsored trips, averaging two each.

In the last three years, the Grattan Institute said these were some of the biggest recipients:

Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne

Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne (formerly defence minister) declared 13 corporate-sponsored events, according to the Grattan Institute.

These included being treated to dinner at high-end Sydney eatery Noma by property giant Lendlease; tickets to an Ed Sheeran concert from Venues NSW, and tickets to the Wallabies v Scotland rugby union courtesy of finance firm AMP and the Australian Rugby Union.

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland was given Australian Tennis Open tickets by Tennis Australia and Optus; six tickets to Wet’n’Wild in Sydney, courtesy of Village Roadshow and tickets to The Championships races at Randwick courtesy of Tabcorp.

Deputy PM Michael McCormack

Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack was comped AFL grand final tickets by NAB; Melbourne Cup tickets courtesy of food and beverage giant Lion and seats at the final of the Australian Men’s Tennis Open from Optus.

Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers

The Shadow Minister was given two Virgin airline executive lounge memberships for two years; a Foxtel subscription in his electorate office from subscription TV lobby group ASTRA (offered to all parliamentarians); and tickets to a State of Origin game corporate box by Lion.

While politicians argue attending public events is an essential part of their job, the Grattan report said sponsored hospitality is another way well-resourced interests can get more access to decision makers.

“We aren’t talking about corruption,” Grattan Institute budget policy and institutional reform program director Danielle Wood said.

“There’s no direct payment for a policy decision, it’s more subtle.

“It’s about building relationships and a sense of reciprocity.”

Jobs after politics

A growing number of senior politicians take jobs with special interests after they leave Parliament — about 28 per cent since 1990 and rising.

Some take jobs in the industry they used to regulate as ministers.

They are supposed to wait 18 months, but many have jumped earlier, saying they will not lobby former colleagues.

There are little consequences for breaching the ban.

So which ministers are early jumpers, and which firms are benefiting from their contacts and experience?

Chinese mining and logistics group Landbridge

Former Liberal trade minister Andrew Robb retired in February 2016.

Just five months later he joined the Chinese mining and logistics behemoth Landbridge.

He justified the move by saying his was a “broad portfolio”, and it was important he was not prohibited completely from work.

Franchise Council of Australia

Former Liberal small business minister Bruce Billson retired his ministership in September 2015, but didn’t retire from Parliament until May 2016.

Two months before that, he took up a role with the Franchise Council of Australia, the peak body for the $146 billion sector which lobbies on issues such as employment, including reform to the Fair Work Act.

Mr Billson was the only politician to be censured by the Parliament after he had left, and only for failing to disclose that he was accepting a salary while still an MP.

Queensland Resources Council

Former Liberal industry minister Ian Macfarlane stepped down from Parliament in September 2015. He signed on with the Queensland Resources Council a year later.

As a peak body, the council is not included on the official register of lobbyists.

Oil and gas peak body APPEA

Former resources minister Martin Ferguson left Parliament in March 2013.

Seven months later, he was scooped up by the oil and gas lobby. As a peak body, APPEA is also not required to register as a lobbyist.

AGL and Santos

Former resources minister Greg Combet retired in June 2013, and had moved into consultancy positions with energy giants AGL and Santos by September the following year.

AGL and Santos (again!)

Over the same time period, his governmental colleague and former trade minister Craig Emerson made the same jump.

Consolidated Press Holdings

Former small business minister Mark Arbib left Parliament in March 2012, and joined the Packer family’s primary business vehicle, Consolidated Press Holdings, three months later.

Financial services multinational Citi

Another former small business minister Nick Sherry left Parliament in December 2011, and less than a year later — in October 2012 — joined financial services multinational Citi.

“There’s at least a risk of the perception that they were making decisions in a way that would favour their future employer,” Ms Wood said.

“The second risk is they bring with them inside information that could benefit special interests that they go on to work for.”

It’s who you know

There are 500 registered lobbyists in Canberra who mainly represent private business, especially high-regulation industries.

Some 40 per cent of registered lobbyists are former government officials — and the number has been rising.

Enforcement of the lobbyist code of conduct is lax and its narrow definition excludes a whole lot of lobbying action, the Grattan Institute said.

For instance, peak groups, such as the Minerals Council of Australia or the Australian Council of Trade Unions, are not deemed lobbyists even though the annual budget for lobbying by all peak bodies has been estimated up to $700 million.

“A large number of our most senior politicians go on to lobbying roles,” Ms Wood said.

“They open doors for their new employer or clients.”

Dark money flowing into politics

Declared donations of $43 million covering the last federal election (financial years 2015-2017) were highly concentrated — just 5 per cent of donors gave more than 50 per cent of all declared contributions.

Here are the top five donors:

  • Investment firm Cormack Foundation $4.54m (Liberal)
  • Then PM Malcolm Turnbull $1.75m (Liberal)
  • Shop assistants’ union SDA $1.35m (Labor)
  • Mining magnate Paul Marks $1.3m (Liberal)
  • United Voice trade union $1.11m (Labor)

State and federal political parties also openly sell access to senior ministers at fundraising events, although individual payments for these events are rarely disclosed.

Some companies also buy annual memberships to Liberal and Labor business forums which provide high-level policy briefings and networking and can cost $110,000.

At least 40 per cent of money going into political party coffers — $154 million — was not publicly identifiable.

“Some of the hidden money will be from small donations and sausage sizzles and that’s fine,” Ms Wood said.

“But there’s so much we don’t know.

“Australians deserve much more visibility about who’s funding our political parties.”

Who’s in the room

Because federal ministerial diaries are secret, the Grattan Institute analysed Queensland and NSW Ministerial diaries over the last 12 to 15 months.

Private business interests got more than 60 per cent of meetings with senior state ministers.

Consumer and community groups were about 20 per cent.

While trade unions are among the biggest donors, they get less than 5 per cent of meetings, although the Grattan report observes many unions access significant influence through the ALP.

In Queensland, 45 per cent of meetings with senior ministers were with high-regulation industries, some of which were also major donors, contributing $10,000 or more.

But some groups are conspicuously under-represented such as young people, consumers and disadvantaged groups, the Grattan report said.

“The harm is that well-resourced interests get more sway over decision-making than the rest of us,” Ms Wood said.

“We want political outcomes, policy making to be about the best ideas, for it to be in the national interest rather than for special interests.”

Draining the billabong

The Grattan Institute points to clear warning signs government policy is sometimes at risk of skewing to rich and powerful interests because the political system entails significant financial dependence, cosy relationships and a lack of transparency.

“Powerful groups have triumphed over the national interest in many recent debates from pokies reform to pharmaceutical groups to toll roads and superannuation reform,” the report said.

“Australians want to drain the billabong: they don’t like the current system and they don’t trust it.”

Ms Wood said Australia needed to do more to reduce the capacity of special interests to control policy.

“If political parties are serious about reducing public cynicism, they should let the sun shine in.

“Tell us where the money is coming from and who our Ministers are meeting with.”









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