Composite image shows the front of Australia's Parliament House, and a portrait of Andrew Wilkie MP in the top corner.

Ending the political influence of unhealthy industries

Ending the political influence of unhealthy industries

By PHAA intern Ellie Hickey

Andrew Wilkie, Independent member for Clark (formerly known as Denison), has been elected to federal parliament five consecutive times. Known for his role as a whistle-blower on the 2003 Iraq war, Mr Wilkie is widely respected across the political spectrum for his commitment to personal integrity. Mr Wilkie recently spoke with PHAA’s Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor, Malcolm Baalman, and PHAA Intern Ellie Hickey about his Cleaning Up Political Donations bill.

“Money only matters because money buys power,” Mr Wilkie explained.

“There’s a whole raft of things in the bill that are good for democracy.

“We’ve long accepted, for example, that we don’t allow cigarette advertising. That just shows that the community understands there has to be limits on certain industries.

“Because as you lower the influence of big donors and corporates, you increase the power of the vote, and you give power back to the voter.

“If a candidate or party can’t enjoy much largess from industry, I think logically it then becomes much more beholden to their constituency and to their voters. They’re much more likely to do what the voter wants.”

The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Cleaning Up Political Donations) Bill seeks to lower the political donation disclosure threshold from $13,800 to $1,000 for individual donations, introduce a cumulative $50,000 cap on donations per election cycle, expand the definition of ‘gifts’ and mandate their real-time disclosure. All these steps would make money in politics more transparent, which is inherently a good outcome for public health policy in Australia.

But the MP’s Bill also includes a proposal to ban donations from four influential industries: gambling, fossil fuels, tobacco, and alcohol. This is perhaps even more important as a reform agenda.

PHAA strongly supports this idea, and in 2011 we adopted a policy statement that called for as many as nine harmful industries to be banned from making political donations.

PHAA believes that public policy decisions should be made in the public good, and in the interest of the public’s health. Keeping unhealthy industries’ money out of parliament works to restore the integrity of our government. It allows politicians to make decisions based on the interests of their constituents rather than those of the industries with the deepest pockets.

While the bill does not explicitly address health, it seeks to reform upstream commercial determinants of health that currently block healthy policy changes from being made, and place significant barriers in the path of those trying to enact change to create environments where the healthy choice is the easy choice. As noted by former WHO Director General Margaret Chan, “efforts to prevent non-communicable diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators”.

Like many in public health, Mr Wilkie is all too familiar with the ways in which big business can interfere with – and even reverse – policy they perceive as threatening their bottom line. In 2012 Mr Wilkie withdrew support for the Labor party after Julia Gillard reneged on an agreement to introduce mandatory pre-commitments on poker machines following pressure from industry.

Mr Wilkie describes gambling, fossil fuels, alcohol and tobacco as “the four most corrosive industries in Australia”, maintaining that allowing these industries to make political donations “fundamentally undermines good governance”.

Transparency of donations isn’t enough in cases where major industries have reached a degree of power and influence that invokes fear into governments to the point they can no longer be trusted to make decisions in the public interest.

PHAA recognises institutional guiderails such as ministerial accountability, transparency of public decision-making, auditing and investigation systems, and effective integrity agencies, are necessary to ensure public policy integrity.

With a new Labor government in power, there is an appetite for reform right now.

We are at a pivotal point in the government’s relationship with gambling reform, with signs that a critical mass of politicians are willing to stand up to the gambling lobby.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has pledged to introduce mandatory cashless gaming cards, and for the first time since 2011, no pre-election memoranda of understanding have been signed between the LNP and ClubsNSW.

While addressing commercial determinants of health may feel like an uphill battle in the face of the immense power and resources of corporate lobby groups, the costs of inaction are far greater. Every day we delay reforms is another day we are saying it’s okay for major industries to exploit vulnerable communities, pull the strings behind government, increase the impacts of climate change, and worsen the burden of chronic disease.

Though unlikely to receive support from the major parties in full, the bill – described by Mr Wilkie as an “essential building block to restoring integrity in federal governance” – his work could play an important role in keeping the issue of corporate political influence front of mind for parliament, raising awareness of its harms and stimulating debate.

“I still think doing this has real value,” even if his bill is not selected for debate, Mr Wilkie said.

“It keeps the issue alive, it adds to the debate, it gives people hope, and ever so slowly it adds to the pressure on the parties.

“The fact that parties resist reform so strongly is because parties are somewhat beholden to donors.”

However, the reforms of the bill are just one part of the story.

Mr Wilkie said that whistle-blower protections, media freedom, and provisions to ensure truth telling in political advertising and election campaigns are also essential.

Mr Wilkie knows that it’s hard to get Parliament to act on reforming the way politics is done, but he’s not pessimistic.

“Most wrongs are eventually righted”, he said.

“If this bill was implemented in full, I don’t doubt that it would dramatically reduce the influence of vested interests, and in doing so elevate the power of the voting public.”


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