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Improved integrity and transparency in Australia’s democracy would also be a win for health

Presenters at the Health and Democracy Forum said that reforms to reduce the political influence of harmful industries could bring big gains for the community’s health, reports Alison Barrett for the Croakey Conference News Service.


Alison Barrett writes:

With a Parliamentary Inquiry underway into the 2022 Federal election, Australia has a big opportunity this year to push for electoral reforms, especially around matters concerning election donation laws and transparency.

This is according to members of the #OurDemocracy campaign – a network of organisations and individuals who are working together to improve integrity in Australia’s democracy – who spoke about the influence and impact of harmful industries on public health at a very timely forum this week.

As well as revelations that consulting firm PwC was involved in leaking confidential government information to assist clients with tax avoidance, this week has brought the publication of new research highlighting a ‘revolving door’ between government and tobacco industry.

According to the research by Dr Christina Watts and colleagues, the “revolving door”­ of people involved in tobacco lobbying holding positions in Australian governments before or after working in the tobacco industry “is a key political lobbying mechanism to influence public health policy”.

The Health and Democracy forum, hosted by the #OurDemocracy campaign, and co-hosted by the Australian Health Promotion Association, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), Australian Democracy Network, Public Health Association of Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, urged attendees to become involved in their campaign to improve integrity in Australia’s democracy.

Changes to financing and election laws, if done well, could make democracy fairer and “improve the likelihood that decisions related to public health will be made in the public interest,” said #OurDemocracy’s Campaign Manager Bethany Koch.

However, if done poorly, harmful industries could continue to “secretly pressure decision makers to put their own profit over people”.

An interim report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry is expected to be published next month, at which time the #OurDemocracy campaign will hold a briefing for civil society organisations to outline the potential changes to Federal electoral laws.

David versus Goliath

In what John Paterson, Acting CEO of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, described as a “David versus Goliath battle”, the forum heard how volunteers and community leaders in Darwin were vital in forcing an independent review of a proposed Dan Murphy’s build near Darwin Airport.

The review ultimately found that Woolworths had failed to consider the needs of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and “put profits above public interest”.

Paterson told the forum their campaign against “one of the biggest corporates in Australia” required input from key stakeholders, health organisations and people with “shared interests and vision of the harm that big corporates could do”. In addition, he said their campaign was strongly supported by evidence.

While the plan for Dan Murphy’s was scrapped, the health advocates remain cautious – “we’re waiting for another launch”, Paterson said.

Also on the panel, Caterina Giorgi, CEO of FARE, spoke about the 20-year campaign for pregnancy health warnings on alcohol products, which will be mandated from July 2023.

Giorgi told the forum that alcohol companies and their lobby groups fought hard against these laws by spreading misinformation and creating doubt about their benefit.

Influential lobbyists

Associate Professor Charles Livingstone from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University told Croakey via email following the forum that “achieving change will require consistent effort and a lot of pressure on those we regard as political allies”.

He said most public health professionals “are well aware of the importance of improving our democratic structures and institutions” and that we generally understand what needs to be done to achieve this.

Whether working towards reducing harm from gambling, alcohol, processed foods and sugary soft drinks, “we know of the power of vested interests, because we deal with the articulation of this power all the time,” he said.

During the forum, Livingstone spoke about the influence of political donations by these harmful industries, including their easier access to meetings with ministers.

“Money is unfortunately what fuels a political system in Australia” and other countries with a system like ours, he said.

Livingstone said that real-time disclosures of donations are urgently needed.

Giorgi questioned whether alcohol and gambling companies should be allowed to donate or be involved in political discussions at all.

Transparency

Lobbying registers ­ – aimed at increasing transparency with information on political donations and meetings between ministers and industry associations – are “riddled with inaccuracies and errors”, according to Dr Jennifer Lacy-Nichols from the University of Melbourne.

“It would be an accurate statement to say that what is unknown about corporate political activity in Australia is infinitely larger than what is known about corporate political activity,” she told the forum.

The ministerial diaries do not capture bureaucrats or senior advisors, and there is limited information about political donations from not-for-profit groups.

“We could do a heck of a lot better when it comes to transparency,” she said.

Individual responsibility

One of the tactics harmful industries use to influence their power and undermine policies is by framing behaviours around individual responsibility, the forum heard.

This kind of framing is “very powerful” and relies on “educating people that they can do better,” Jane Martin, Executive Manager for the Food For Health Alliance said.

Martin told Croakey after the forum that placing the focus on individuals, “takes the focus away from corporate behaviour which then frames the solutions as ones that are in the hands of individuals”.

“We have seen this time and time again where information and education are favoured by governments above more powerful and impactful policy or regulatory interventions. These approaches can have the effect of widening socioeconomic inequalities,” she said.

“Interventions which create supportive environments through structural change are more equitable.”

During the forum, Livingstone said terms such as “responsible gambling” and “responsible drinking” are also problematic as they impose shame and stigma on the individual.

Solutions

The #OurDemocracy Campaign has developed a Framework for a Fair Democracy, outlining the reforms needed for a strong and fair democracy:

Stamp out corruption – elected leaders should represent best interest of communities and be held accountable if using their positions for personal gain. A National Anti-Corruption Commission was legislated in November 2022. The Framework recommends the establishment of an enforceable Code of Conduct, independent funding of integrity offices, and a merit-based process for appointing government advisors.

End cash for access – Ministers need to be transparent about meetings and have a cooling off period between ministerial work and industry jobs. Large political donations should be banned altogether.

Level the playing field in election debates – stop corporations from spending millions campaigning against regulation, limit political spending on election ads and introduce standards of honesty in election campaigns.

Supplied by #OurDemocracy

Alice Drury from the Human Rights Law Centre reiterated that this year is a key opportunity to make “a big song and dance about lobbying” and advocate for caps on donation spending.

Following the forum, Livingstone told Croakey we need to change the way we talk about the issues:

It’s not ‘problem gambling’, or ‘problem drinking’, or irresponsible consumption, or bad parenting, or lack of ‘self-control’.

It’s about harmful industries that knowingly and aggressively market and normalise dangerous products, in full awareness of the consequences, and in the knowledge that their profits rely on over consumption by often addicted people.”

In addition, he suggested that people contact their parliamentary representative “to tell them that increased transparency of donations and lobbying activity is a major issue”.

Lacy-Nichols told Croakey that whatever sector people work in, in addition to also engaging with local MPs on the issue, opportunities exist to address commercial determinants of health.

“Small steps could include developing a conflict-of-interest policy for contracts,” she said.

Additional information

Watch a recording of the forum here.

You can endorse the Framework For a Fair Democracy here.

Selling Out: How powerful industries corrupt our democracy, report by Alice Drury at Human Rights Law Centre.

The Lancet Series on Commercial determinants of health

A proposal for systematic monitoring of the commercial determinants of health: a pilot study assessing the feasibility of monitoring lobbying and political donations in Australia, article by Jennifer Lacy-Nichols and Katherine Cullerton in BMC Globalization and Health

From Twitter

See Alison Barrett’s full Twitter thread covering the forum here.