Introduction by Croakey: A Parliamentary inquiry reviewing the 2022 federal election – which aims to help ensure accountable and transparent conduct of elections and support public confidence in our electoral system and democracy – offers an important opportunity for health advocates.
The terms of reference include examining proposals to reform laws on political donations, including real time disclosure and a reduction to the disclosure threshold, and potential reforms to election funding.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters also expects to focus on the potential for ‘truth in political advertising’ laws, and increasing participation of First Nations people.
Dr Jennifer Lacy-Nichols, a Research Fellow and Academic Specialist in Non Communicable Diseases at the Centre for Health Policy, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, has some suggestions below for health advocates seeking to engage with the inquiry. Submissions close 7 October 2022.
Jennifer Lacy-Nichols writes:
The Parliamentary Inquiry into the 2022 Federal Election may sound unrelated to public health. Far from it. The Inquiry is an opportunity to improve political transparency and integrity in Australia. This is crucial to ensure that public health is prioritised over commercial profits.
Why does political transparency matter for health?
In Australia, like many countries around the world, powerful corporations try to influence governments to favour their interests. And often, corporate interests run counter to public health.
There is strong community support for a tax on sugary drinks, yet the Australian Beverages Council has applauded its successful lobbying to oppose this. Gambling harms include addiction, family violence, depression and suicide, yet Australian political parties have accepted millions from the gambling industry.
In the absence of political transparency, it is incredibly challenging to make sure that governments are acting in the public interest.
Political transparency is not a panacea for addressing undue corporate influence. But it is an important first step towards scrutinising that influence and drawing attention to the disproportionate access that some corporate actors have compared to individual Australia citizens.
Political donations (one of the topics of the Inquiry) are one way to influence governments. Loosely, political donations buy access.
Of course, as someone whose research is all about corporations, politics and health, I will be the first to admit that it is very difficult to show that a specific corporate donation led to a specific outcome favourable to that entity.
But political science scholarship shows a clear pattern to campaign contributions improving access to politicians. Australian research supports this finding, and also notes the role of donations in building long-term relationships. This means that those who cannot donate large sums of money are at a disadvantage.
Many businesses that donate in Australia engage in practices that harm health. An ABC investigation identified more than $81 million in political payments from the gambling industry in the past two decades.
The mining and resources industry spent over $136 million during that time, making it the largest political donor in Australia, followed by the property sector. Big Four consulting firms (especially PwC and KPMG) are amongst the largest political donors, raising questions about the millions awarded to the sector in government contracts (over $750 million in the past two years).
The transparency of the Australian political system is seriously lacking.
If we want to improve the system, there are many examples internationally:
- The OECD is currently reviewing its recommended principles for transparency and integrity in lobbying.
- The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has created a political finance design tool that discusses different policy options.
- The Open Secrets database is a searchable repository in the US that tracks political donations and lobbying expenditure.
- The Transparency Register offers a similar repository for the European Commission.
- The Australian Centre for Public Integrity offers a clearcut Blueprint to rein in money in politics (with more detailed reforms here too).
The Inquiry is now open for submissions (closing on 7 October 2022). While all aspects of the Terms of Reference are important, I focus on the first here, as it is directly related to transparency:
(a) reforms to political donation laws, particularly the applicability of ‘real-time’ disclosure and a reduction of the disclosure threshold to a fixed $1,000.
To help kickstart the process, I’ve listed some ideas below (there are certainly more).
Ways that political transparency could be improved in Australia:
- Require all donations to be real time
- Disclose all donations, no matter the amount
- Disclose donations to individuals
- Disclose the motivation or purpose behind the donation (e.g., attend a dinner with minister X to discuss policy issues A, B and C)
- Ensure names for donors and recipients are consistent (e.g., currently the NSW Liberal Party is spelled 100+ different ways)
- Create a unique ID for all donors and recipients (e.g., require all companies to list their ABN)
- Tag companies/associations with descriptive attributes, e.g. their industry, parent company, HQ location, number of employees, revenue, market capitalisation, membership in associations, and lobby firms hired
If the goal is to improve political transparency and integrity overall, then the following complementary changes should be made to the lobbyist registers and ministerial diaries:
- Make all registers and diaries comply with ‘open data’ principles: machine readable (for example, a spreadsheet), downloadable at once, free of charge, etc.
- Require all states/territories/fed to have open diaries/calendars (currently just NSW, QLD, ACT); update calendars in real time; require open calendars for advisors and staffers as well; include requests for meetings, phone calls, events; provide more detail about the purpose of the meeting (including any specific policies discussed and policy positions); list individual attendees (not just the name of the organisation)
- Have lobbyist registers include: the amount spent on lobbying; record of each lobbyist’s activities (including who met with, topics discussed, hours spent lobbying); employment history of the lobbyist (e.g., specific positions held in government)
- All lobbyists, donors, politicians and other in the datasets should be assigned a unique ID, which would facilitate comparisons between the datasets.
We talk about a ‘fair go’ in Australia. Let’s make sure that everyone has a fair chance to have their voices heard by government.
Dr Jennifer Lacy-Nichols is a commercial determinants of health research fellow at the University of Melbourne with a fellowship from the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. Her research explores strategies to systematically monitor corporate political practices, such as lobbying and political donations.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on the commercial determinants of health