Sick governance risks all our health

The legs of the flag pole and flag on top of Australian Parliament House.

Malcolm Baalman – PHAA Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser

We saw a disappointing Budget this week, with virtually no new investment in population-level prevention of diseases.

What governments decide to do – or not do – makes a huge difference to the population’s health. Governments make laws about environmental health, about product safety, about marketing of unhealthy products, and many other matters.

Governments also make key investment decisions about public spending and taxing – for example, what goes to preventive health programs, and what tax or subsidy arrangements apply to unhealthy food and, drink.

Sadly, governments do not make their decisions on evidence alone. Too many ‘harmful product’ industries have influence over governments and, as a result, over everyone’s health.

Consider a current example. Alcohol is one of our major drivers of cancer and other forms of disease, as well as violence. Governments determine major price drivers of alcohol through taxation, decide where and when alcohol can be sold and when and where it can be consumed. They can regulate many of the ways in which it can be marketed to potential consumers, including vulnerable audiences such as children.

But policy is not based on the public good alone. The alcohol product and retail sectors made donations of over $600,000 to the two major political parties in the 2020-21 period. There may be more: the federal political donations register is incomplete due to loopholes and delays.

But that’s not the whole of the industry’s activity. In recent months, the sector’s lobbyists have been campaigning to cut pub beer sales taxes. They have been actively working on ministers and other members of Parliament, and running a media campaign to support it.

The industry argued that people would love a beer price cut. But, there’s no guarantees that prices would actually drop because of the tax cut. If it did, how is that helpful for people’s health if they’re going to have one extra drink at the pub?

The proposal would also mean around $150 million in less tax collected – meaning less money is available for health programs and other public needs.

There was widespread speculation that this tax giveaway would be in this week’s Budget. It wasn’t, but that does not mean the idea is dead – it will probably re-emerge during or after the coming election campaign.

There are endless examples of industry influence on health policy matters, such as:

  • Pregnancy warning labelling on alcohol,
  • Regulations governing nicotine in vaping products
  • The decade-long delay in further anti-smoking mass marketing campaigns,
  • Food labelling regulations

If decisions aren’t made in the public interest, the health of everyone in Australia suffers. Ultimately, it means more cancers, more unhealthy food and drinks consumed – especially by children, leading to increased non-communicable disease burden, more fossil fuel subsidies, weaker regulations on gambling, unsafe water, and many other health threats.

Perhaps the most significant industry influence on our health is the vast effort of the fossil fuel and mining industries to hinder climate emissions policy development.

Our toxic lobbying culture

The lobbying culture affects all governments; federal, state and territory. There have been some improvements to donations and political finance laws at state level, but they vary in strength and, crucially, are not supported by matching and integrated federal political laws and controls. Federally, there are limited means of enforcement of integrity. The national Audit Office is effective when it selects topics to review, but its funding is constrained. The lobbyist ‘industry’ itself has a voluntary and weak code of conduct. There is, ridiculously, still no federal integrity commission to oversee everything – despite repeated government commitments.

The lobbying that physically occurs inside Parliament House, and the role of money in industry’s influence, is shocking. The building is not a safe space for members of Parliament, ministers, or their staff. Any member or senator can grant passes to access the building to all sorts of corporate or private lobbyists. Many public servants and representatives of non-government organisations can also get access, but it’s pretty clear that private and corporate interests flood the space. They are very well resourced, ever-present, and relentless. Many members of Parliament and staff hate this situation, but it’s become the culture of politics.

There is little visibility into these activities. We just don’t know how much money unhealthy industries spend on buying decisions from our elected representatives – because of legal loopholes that allow multiple hidden donations. We don’t know which lobbyists are getting into which ministers’ offices, because there’s virtually no public record. Attempts have been made in some state parliaments to force the publication of ministerial diaries, revealing what lobbyists visited and why. But there is no such register in federal parliament, and there are many forms of contact other than recorded meetings, anyway.

There’s a career revolving door between lobbyists and the staff in ministerial offices. Ministers and their advisers are attracted to job opportunities following their public service. The prospect of future, well-paid work in the lobbying sector feeds back into the daily decisions of politicians and advisors. It’s been happening with all governments for years, and this too has become an embedded culture.

How to clear the air

But there have been several proposals for how to clean up the situation – or at least try. The Our Democracy alliance has a 10-point plan to take action on lobbying, donations, and the revolving door for careers. Similar plans for reforms have been published by the Centre for Public Integrity, Transparency International, and the Australia Institute. It’s also important to acknowledge that some current politicians – prominently independent Helen Haines MP, but also others – have been working on integrity reforms, albeit without success.

Australia’s media do pay attention to this, but there is almost a weary acceptance that lobbying is normal. Specialist media such as Michael West Media, Crikey (paywall), and Croakey Health Media do good work shining a light on it.

But this can’t continue. Government belongs to all, and is meant to act in our interests, for our wellbeing. We need change.

We need real and urgent reform of Australia’s integrity laws.

We need to know which lobbyists are operating in our parliament, influencing our ministers and their advisers.

We need to know how they’re spending money on public influence campaigns, and we need to end the donation disclosure loopholes.

Some state parliaments have banned donations altogether from industries like tobacco and gambling. The Australian Parliament should do the same.

Above all, we need a strong national integrity commission to police all the integrity rules and bring malpractice to light.

We actually know what to do – we just need the members of Parliament themselves, with backing by whoever is in government, to legislate for the necessary changes onto the culture of politics. Until this happens, it’s literally true to say that our health is at risk.

Our individual actions matter

Soon, we’ll vote to elect a new Australian Parliament.

If you’re worried about health policy-making, you should demand that any candidate or party you’re thinking of supporting commits to urgent and real reforms for integrity in politics. Weigh up their responses carefully. Then vote for public health.


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Image: Kylie de Guia/Unsplash

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