There are many key public issues that we must address, such as climate change, growing inequality, tax avoidance, budget repair, an ageing population, lifting our productivity, and our treatment of asylum seekers.

But our capacity to address these and other important issues is becoming very difficult because of the power of vested interests with their lobbying power to influence governments in a quite disproportionate way.

Lobbying has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in Canberra. It now represents a growing and serious corruption of good governance and the development of sound public policy. In referring to the so-called “public debate” on climate change, Professor Ross Garnaut highlighted the “diabolical problem” that vested interests brought to bear.

Ken Henry, a former secretary of Treasury, said in the foreword to this policy series: “I can’t remember a time in the last 25 years when the quality of public policy debate has been as bad as it is right now.” He was followed as secretary of Treasury by Martin Parkinson, who warned us about “vested interests”, which seek concessions from government at the expense of ordinary citizens. Former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel cautioned us: “A new conga line of rent-seekers is lining up to take the place of those that have fallen out of favour.” In referring to opposition to company tax and carbon-pollution reform policies, Ross Gittins in The Sydney Morning Herald said “industry lobby groups [have] become less inhibited in pressing private interests at the expense of the wider public interest. [They] are ferociously resistant to reform proposals.”

These problems are widespread and growing

There are 266 lobbying entities registered in Canberra with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. These entities employ a significant number of lobbyists, e.g. Barton Deakin employs 12 lobbyists, Newgate Communications 12, Crosby Textor 7, Government Relations Solutions 7, and GRACosway 17. Some accounting firms, including three of the majors, that undertake lobbying are not obliged to register. Charitable, religious and non-government organisations do not have to register. On top of these “third-party” lobbyists, there are the special interests who conduct their own lobbying, such as the Minerals Council of Australia, and the Australian Pharmacy Guild.

These lobbyists encompass a range of interests, including mining, clubs, hospitals, private health funds, business and hotels, which have all successfully challenged government policy and the public interest. Just think what the Minerals Council of Australia did to subvert public discussion on the Mining Super Profits Tax and the activities of Clubs Australia to thwart gambling reform, or the polluters over an emissions trading scheme and the carbon tax. I estimate there are over 1000 lobbyists, part time and full time, and of all shapes and sizes operating in Canberra. Secret lobbying is pervasive and insidious. It must be curbed and made transparent.

With journalism under-resourced, the media depends increasingly on the propaganda and promotion put into the public arena by these vested interests. The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS, in a 2010 collaboration with Crikey, found in a survey of major metropolitan newspapers published in Australia that 55% of content was driven by public relations handouts from lobbyists and their associated public relations arms, and 24% of the content of those metropolitan newspapers had no significant journalistic input whatsoever, relying heavily on public relations handouts.

Many of the so-called economic experts we read, hear and see on our media are in the employment of banks and accounting firms with their own self-interested agendas.

With over 60% of metropolitan newspaper circulations in Australia, News Corp is a major obstacle to informed debate on key public issues like climate change and our role in Iraq. Essential Media found that the ABC and SBS were the most trusted media in Australia. Not surprisingly the least trusted were the Murdoch papers; The Australian, Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Courier-Mail.

For example, the health “debate”’ is really between the Health Minister and the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Pharmacy Guild, Medicines Australia, and the private health insurance companies. The debate is not with the public about health policy and strategy; it is about how the Minister and the department manage the vested interests.

The wealthy private schools with their lobbying and political clout are obstacles to needs-based funding, which is necessary for both equity and efficiency reasons.

Much of the policy skills in Canberra departments have been downgraded, and “policy” work is contracted out to accounting and consultancy firms. Policy work within the government is now undertaken more in specialist organisations such as the Productivity Commission rather than in the departments. Departmental policy capability has been seriously eroded. That is the real story behind the problems of the pink batts scheme.

*Read the rest at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey