Let’s do an experiment.
If Donald Trump announced he was going to hand money to a major fossil fuel company, which happened to be a large Republican donor and whose former executives worked in his administration, what would you think?
What if it was money from an allocation notionally for reducing carbon emissions, and it was for something that actually involved greater fossil fuel use?
That would be seen, and reported — probably even in conservative media outlets — as the corruption it is.
This week, exactly those events happened, but they happened here.
On Tuesday, the government — which has a number of former resources and energy sector executives and lobbyists working in its ranks — revealed it would, on the recommendation of a panel including a former executive of energy company Santos, seek to expand its failed emissions reduction fund to include carbon capture and storage projects, which Santos has heavily backed as a replacement for meaningful climate action.
And yesterday, the government released a discussion paper proposing that the declining role of gas in Australia’s energy production and manufacturing sectors instead be significantly expanded, which would also directly benefit Santos.
In between, the government’s COVID economic recovery panel, chaired by another energy company executive, also urged that gas be used as part of Australia’s economic recovery. Both ideas would require massive government subsidies for gas companies like Santos.
As a result Santos has had a good week. Last Friday, the company saw its share price close at $4.60. Yesterday it closed at $5.29, a 15% rise compared to just 3% on the ASX 200.
This represents a handy return on investment. Santos is the country’s second-biggest fossil fuel industry political donor after Clive Palmer, having given over $1 million to the Coalition in the last decade. It has a rich history of exchanging staff with Coalition governments.
The media coverage of the government’s decisions this week was by no means uncritical — this is not a lament about biased or poor journalism.
Some journalists noted the backgrounds of some of the figures involved — such as Grant King, the former Origin Energy CEO who recommended the funding of carbon capture and storage — but no one discussed Santos’ donations and personnel links with the Coalition.
The story was treated as an energy or climate policy story, rather than one about corruption and power.
It was written in a way that it would never have been written if the same kind of corruption occurred under Trump.
Last Monday, Four Corners examined the failure of the Rudd government to achieve a meaningful carbon pricing scheme. It was a very good political account, but there was a dimension that was completely absent — the role of business in driving opposition to the Labor scheme.
There was a solitary mention of business being unhappy with the scheme, but no discussion of the role of resources companies or major business lobby groups in sabotaging the scheme.
The Business Council, which also opposed ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, campaigned heavily against the scheme (these days, it lies that it supported it). The role of fossil fuel donations in driving the opposition and obstructionism of the Coalition during that period — when it went from supporting the introduction of a comprehensive emissions trading scheme under John Howard to opposing any climate action at all under Tony Abbott — wasn’t mentioned, either.
When even good, experienced journalists fail to give a full account of the fossil fuel companies working to not merely stymie climate action but to turn climate policies to their financial advantage, it points to a serious problem in our media — an inability to explore how surface events reflect underlying structures of power in Australia.
And it results in a normalisation of corruption.
Why do we instinctively see corruption if Trump does something, but if the government here does exactly the same thing, it’s written up seriously as an energy policy story, with the government and business on one side of a serious debate and “green groups” on the other?
We see through the words a figure like Trump uses to disguise their corruption; here, the same words are taken at face value, and debated as serious contributions to policy.
Malcolm Turnbull got at this in his book. During his interview with Leigh Sales, Turnbull complained that in her questions she was “talking about tactics, rather than the substance”. When Sales replied “politics is about tactics and substance”, he responded, “but it seems to be mostly about tactics in the Australian media”.
Turnbull at least spoke and wrote about the role of fossil fuel interests and News Corp (which he correctly described as a foreign political party, rather than what it purports to be, an Australian media company) even if he failed to address the role of donations. While Turnbull was guilty of hypocrisy, he at least addressed something that is too rarely explored by the media.
Turnbull appears regularly in the media in his post-prime ministerial life. Other figures have suffered a strange fate.
Former treasurer Wayne Swan, who was central to the Rudd government’s response to the financial crisis and witnessed first hand the power of fossil fuel interests, seems unable to get airtime on the ABC. He has appeared only fleetingly on 7.30 since 2013, and unlike a number of other figures from the Labor era, has been entirely absent from its economic coverage.
In contrast to post-political appearances by Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, Joe Hockey, Peter Costello and Paul Keating, Swan seems unpopular with ABC producers. (The ABC says Swan was invited recently to be interviewed for a 7.30 story on May 12 to discuss Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s economic statement; Swan says he declined in order to not detract from shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers formally responding to his opposite number.)
Given Swan has spent his time post-treasurership working extensively in international fora on inequality and the problem of international corporate tax, he’d be a useful resource for media interested in exploring structural economic issues and their political impact (the resurgence of populism, anyone?). His absence from economic coverage speaks volumes.
This kind of analysis isn’t even particularly demanding or resource-intensive.
Despite the woeful level of transparency around influence-peddling, there is considerable information available about the financial and personal links between key stakeholders and policymakers across federal politics.
Michael West is the one journalist who assiduously explores these links and compiles information about them. He sees the flow of money and follows it, showing how it can be done even by a lone journalist willing to delve into the details.
At the ABC, Stephen Long is one of the few mainstream media journalists who sees his “investigative” role as extending to the structures of power rather than simply the surface. Paul Karp of The Guardian is also attuned to the tendency of donors to benefit from political parties. But they are, sadly, exceptions.
We’ve seen before what happens when the media ignores the underlying reasons for decisions by policymakers.
For years, the extensive donations by the major banks to the Liberal Party, and the revolving door between the executive suites of banks and the ranks of both ministerial staff and ministers themselves, was ignored by the media. The donations and revolving doors operated for both political parties, but the Liberals had — and have — by far the deepest and richest links with the banks.
But the role of these financial and personal links in the Liberals’ long-running protection of the banks from regulation, and their constant attacks on industry superannuation funds, received little attention.
The result was that there was no serious reckoning for appalling bank misconduct and immiseration of customers for far too long, until Labor overcame its resistance and joined the Nationals and the Greens in pushing for a royal commission.
How many additional lives and businesses were ruined because the media — made up of good, hard-working journalists — didn’t pay attention to the underlying structure of financial power that dictated how policies were made?
Australia’s political system is corrupted.
Corrupted not merely or even particularly in the NSW Labor way of bags of cash and dodgy deals for mates, but systemically, institutionally corrupt, a pervasive soft corruption in which the powerful use money and lobbying to influence policymakers and get favourable policies, indeed, as we’ve seen this week, often get to craft policy themselves.
All it takes to understand and explain that is to look beneath the surface.
Is the Australian media holding policymakers to account? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.