The gifts that buy political access in Australia

Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesHot air over Canberra. The annual balloon festival.
  • A Grattan Institute study into lobbying and influence in politics recommends a cleaner and fairer system in Australia.
  • Federal MPs should be stopped from taking lucrative lobbying roles when leaving parliament.
  • And political advertising spending should be capped to reduce the reliance by political parties parties on a few big donors.

Business groups, unions and not-for-profits are influencing policy in Australia to serve their interests, sometimes at the expense of the public interest, according to research by the non-aligned think tank the Grattan Institute.

The report — Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics — recommends stronger checks and balances on policy influence to make Australian politics cleaner and fairer.

Federal ministers should publish their diaries, as state ministers in NSW and Queensland already do.

A list of all lobbyists with security passes to federal Parliament House should be made public and kept up-to-date.

Big donations to federal political parties should be disclosed in close to real-time, as they are already in Queensland.

Federal MPs and their staff should be prevented from moving straight into lobbing roles, with the rules enforced by an independent body.

And political advertising expenditure should be capped to reduce the arms race between parties and their reliance on a few big donors.

The report says major donors to political parties are more likely to get a meeting with a senior minister, and time with ministers is explicitly “for sale” at party fundraising events.

The major parties rely heavily on a handful of big donors to fund their election campaigns with 5% of donors contributed more than half of the big parties’ declared donations at the 2016 federal election.

More than one-quarter of federal politicians go on to post-politics jobs for special interests, where their relationships can help open doors, as this chart shows:

It’s part of the job description for politicians to meet with a variety of people pushing particular views.

“But it can be a slippery slope from meetings in the office, to meetings over lunch (who pays?) to hospitality in corporate boxes at sporting events and sponsored international travel,” says the report.

“Sponsored hospitality is another way well-resourced interests can get more access to decision makers. Events and travel offer a more relaxed and less time-constrained setting to build relationships.”

Federal politicians have accepted at least 55 corporate-sponsored overseas trips since 2010, according to analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute of politicians’ disclosures.

More than two-thirds (68%) of federal ministers and shadow ministers have declared corporate sponsored hospitality, either events or travel, and 7% have accepted overseas trips sponsored by a foreign government or agency.

“Such hospitality can create an actual or perceived conflict of interest,” says the report. “And gifts and benefits can make favoured treatment more likely.”

The federal Ministerial Standards require that ministers “do not come under any financial or other obligation to individuals or organisations to the extent that they may appear to be influenced improperly in the performance of their official duties”.

But ministers are still allowed to accept “customary official gifts, hospitality, tokens of appreciation, and similar formal gestures”.

The Queensland code of conduct is stricter. It specifies that ministers should not accept sponsored hospitality but still senior ministers in Queensland attended sports events with corporate interests on at least 15 times in 2017.

“This is not necessarily a breach of the code — they may have paid their own way, for example — but clearly this approach to relationship-building and influence is commonplace, and has the potential to create conflicts of interest,” says the report.

Some industries dominate donations to political parties:

The report says highly regulated industries contribute the biggest share of political donations, followed by unions, and individuals with no known industry links.

“Such a high share of donations from heavily regulated industries suggests that a prime motive for donating is access and influence, or at least a desire to see the more favourably-inclined party win power,” says the report.

“Businesses in some of these industries – property and construction, mining, and gambling, for example – donate much more than would be expected given their economic size.

“Most donors say they contribute to political parties and their associated entities to support Australian democracy or to create a stable political environment in which businesses can prosper.

“This may well be a sincere motive. But if it was the primary consideration we would expect to see more donors contributing to both major parties and fewer donations from industries with a lot of skin in the political game.”

Grattan Institute’s Institutional Reform Program Director Danielle Wood says powerful groups have triumphed over the public interest in some recent debates, from pokies reform to pharmaceutical prices, to toll roads and superannuation governance.

“Australians want to drain the billabong,” Danielle Wood says.

“They don’t like the current system and they don’t trust it.

“The changes we propose would improve the quality of policy debate and boost the public’s confidence that policy is being made for all Australians — not just those in the room.”

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