Australians are rightly concerned about the role of special interests in politics. Even a healthy democracy like Australia’s can be vulnerable to policy capture. Well-resourced interests – such as big business, unions and not-for-profits – use money, resources and relationships to influence policy to serve their interests, at times at the expense of the public interest. Even if they are only sometimes successful, it’s not the ‘fair go’ Australians expect.
Access to decision makers is vital for anyone seeking to influence policy. But some groups get more access than others. Businesses with the most at stake in government decisions lobby harder and get more meetings with senior ministers. Some industries – such as gambling and property construction – are hugely over-represented compared to their contribution to the economy.
Money and relationships can boost access: time with ministers and their shadows is explicitly ‘for sale’ at fundraising dinners, and major donors are more likely to get a meeting with a senior minister. And more than one-quarter of politicians go on to post-politics jobs for special interests, where their relationships can help open doors.
The major political parties rely on a handful of big donors: just 5 per cent of donors contributed more than half of the big parties’ declared donations at the last election. Donations build relationships and a sense of reciprocity. And the fact that industries in the cross-hairs of policy debate sometimes donate generously and then withdraw once the debate has moved on suggests they believe, perhaps rightly, that money matters.
Special interests also seek influence through the public debate. The idea is simple: if you can capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public then policy makers will usually follow. Major advertising campaigns are the preserve of well-resourced groups: unions, industry peak bodies and GetUp! were major spenders in the past decade. Some groups commission consultants or think tanks to lend credibility to their case. The media often publish their findings uncritically or fail to ask: ‘who paid for this research?’
Who’s in the room – and who’s in the news – matters for policy outcomes. Powerful groups have triumphed over the public interest in some recent debates, from pokies reforms to pharmaceutical prices, to toll roads and superannuation governance.
This report shows how to strengthen checks and balances on policy influence. Publishing ministerial diaries and lists of lobbyists with passes to Parliament House could encourage politicians to seek more diverse input. More timely and comprehensive data would improve visibility of the major donors to political parties. Accountability should be strengthened through clear standards for MPs’ conduct, enforced by an independent body. A cap on political advertising expenditure would reduce the donations ‘arms race’ between parties and their reliance on major donors. These reforms won’t cure every ill, but they are likely to help. They would improve the incentives to act in the public interest and have done no obvious harm in jurisdictions where they have been implemented.
Australians want to drain the billabong: they don’t like the current system and they don’t trust it. This report proposes some simple changes that 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.