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How to buy a politician

Lobbyists are sharing the limelight with Labor and Liberal politicians at Sydney’s anti-corruption inquiry into Australian Water Holdings, a company once chaired by Senator Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s former chief of staff.

Not for the first time in ICAC’s 25-year history, the witness list is dominated by the twin professions – lobbyists and MPs – who seem to be joined at the hip.

Indeed, the political process in Canberra and the capital cities has been so corporatised that lobbyists are now an integral part of how ‘modern’ governments work.

Lobbyists – or ‘government consultants’ as they like to call themselves – are drawn almost exclusively from three backgrounds: former MPs (or ministers), former political staffers or former journalists (newspapers, TV or radio).

Having hung up their shingle or joined a global consultancy they offer private corporate clients the magic of access to the corridors of parliamentary power. They can arrange one-on-one meetings with prime ministers, premiers or ministers. The economy ‘no frills’ option might be a meeting with ministerial staff or a briefing by a senior civil servant.

All this happens in private and behind closed doors. Voters, the community and the general public have no knowledge of the meetings, or what is discussed, or the agreements reached. With rare exceptions, the meetings go unrecorded and details are not reported to parliament or to backbenchers.

It is a perfect system for mining companies, banks, developers and the like. They can conduct their influence-peddling and arm-twisting of elected politicians without any public or media oversight.

Boardrooms are willing to pay large sums of money for this goldplated access. The money is shared neatly: the lobbyist takes a commission – of say 30 per cent – and the rest becomes a party donation. Everyone’s a winner, with the exception of kept-in-the-dark voters.

I don’t know the going rate for a meeting with the PM, but covering NSW Parliament 10 years ago lobbyists were asking $50,000 to arrange a meeting with a minister. Breweries, wagering firms, poker machine operators, race clubs and publicans would pay more. In return, they received extra time.

By way of explanation this article is confined to the lobbyists representing powerful commercial interests who enjoy access, over-arching influence and corrupting power within governance at all levels. There are ‘good’ lobbyists representing charities, not-for-profit organisations, community, health, pensioner, welfare, Aboriginal and overseas aid groups who selflessly rally support for their causes and offer seriously researched policy options. Among MPs, staffers and bureaucrats they are usually derided as ‘do-gooders’.

In mid-April, the UK’s biggest drug firm, GlaxoSmithKline, was caught bribing doctors in China, Poland, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The company’s China investigation uncovered bribes worth half a billion dollars to doctors, as well as supplying them sexual favours, to promote GSK pills.

‘Big Pharma’ is no different from other powerful vested interests when it comes to sales promotion and buying a competitive edge over rivals. We can only speculate about the extent of kickbacks that are privately given to elected legislators in parliaments around this country.

With the incremental growth of lobbying, MPs have attempted to regulate lobbying by introducing registers and logging meetings online for public inspection. Pecuniary interest registers have to be filled out regularly and gifts over certain value (usually between $500 and $1000) recorded.

In order to avoid parliamentary disclosure regimes, big companies are taking a more direct approach. They are no longer hiring lobbyists – who are usually incompetent careerists waiting for a chance to become MPs – but instead using their corporate and political contacts to go straight to Cabinet ministers. They save money by cutting out the middle men and save themselves any embarrassment from public disclosure.

Put simply, instead of putting lobbyists on the payroll wealthy corporates are buying up politicians. It’s Washington’s way, it flourishes in the Palace of Westminster, and now it’s reached Australia.

Ironically, the first legislation brought forward by Barry O’Farrell after his stunning election victory in March 2011 was to tighten rules for the conduct of lobbyists. Introducing the Lobbying of Government Officials Bill in 2011, O’Farrell told MPs: ‘This bill is part of a series of measures that the government will take to restore confidence in public administration in NSW – confidence destroyed by 16 years of a Labor Government and a decisions-for-donations culture that has grown up.’

When he accepted the bottle of Grange a year later and wrote a thank-you note to the donor, he became the first victim of his own code of conduct. As a colleague remarked, ‘Barry was caught red-handed – and I’m not referring to the Grange’.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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