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What does $895 buy when it comes to Liberal Party health policy?

Public health setbacks from the UK to NSW are shining a light on the influence of corporate lobbyists, as outlined in the previous post. 

In light of these developments, it would be useful to know if tobacco, alcohol and gambling interests were represented at a recent Liberal Party fundraiser on health policy. (It’s a pretty safe bet that the private health lobby was there in force).

According to an invitation that was forwarded to Croakey, the Canberra office of PriceWaterhouseCoopers hosted the $895 dinner on Sunday 7 July.

The drawcards were Peter Dutton, Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing; Zed Seselja, ACT Liberal Candidate for the Senate, and Jeremy Hanson MLA, ACT Leader of the Opposition, and ACT Shadow Minister for Health.

Health policy analyst and Croakey moderator Jennifer Doggett suggests in the article below that the political and policy impact of such events deserves wider scrutiny and debate.

***

What is really on the menu?

Jennifer Doggett writes:

When an invitation to a $895-a-head fundraising dinner with Peter Dutton, Jeremy Hanson and Zed Seselja came across Croakey’s desk, it prompted some internal discussions about these types of events and their role in the political process.

We are used to seeing our political representatives in the media engaged in Question Time rants and kissing babies on the campaign trail.

However, a key part of politicians’ jobs these days is to raise campaign funds for their parties.  One way this is achieved is through fundraising events where interest groups pay to attend a dinner or other function where they have the opportunity to meet with key politicians in their area.

Ministers, Shadow Ministers and other portfolio holders are the most attractive to lobby groups, in particular in high spending portfolios such as defence and health.  

For Australian politicians, raising money for their party has not become the high priority it is for politicians in the US. Some politicians in the USA are virtually full time fundraisers for their parties with tasks such as debating bills, committee work and voting on legislation taking second place to their fundraising commitments.

For example, in 2011, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democrat Nancy Pelosi attended 400 political fundraising events.  She is reported to have raised around $300 million for her party over the last ten years.

One reason why Australian political parties don’t have the same focus on fund raising as do parties in the USA is that political parties in Australia receive substantial public funding (proportional to the number of votes they receive). However, when advertising equals dollars there is always pressure on parties to earn more and no party would knock back the opportunity to increase their war chests going into an election campaign.

So what’s in it for the interest groups who spend close to a thousand dollars a head to spend an evening at the dinner table with their competitors and some (probably exhausted) politicians?

It’s clearly not just about access as they could easily meet with the same politicians privately for nothing, simply by making a few phone calls to their office. It’s also not just about ‘buying influence’ as $895.00 is hardly enough to force a policy change or funding commitment (at least on its own).

In any event, it’s often not the policy heavyweights of the party who attend these fundraisers (does anyone seriously think Zed Seselja or Jeremy Hanson are going to be holding the purse strings when the Coalition determines its pre-election health funding commitments?).

In general, the groups who attend these events do so as a gesture of goodwill, as part of an overall government relations strategy that recognises that building influence at the political level is primarily about relationships.

Lobbying in Canberra has moved a long way away from backroom deals involving unmarked notes in brown paper bags.

Government relations is now seen as a legitimate part of the political process involving skilled professionals assisting interest groups to develop mutually beneficial relationships with politicians.

Supporting party fundraisers can be one part of an overall government relations strategy that helps build a positive relationship between the interest group and the relevant politician.

Attending fundraisers can be useful to interest groups by putting the CEO or head of the interest group in front of a key politician in order for them to initiate or develop a personal relationship. This can be useful, although it can often be more important to have a positive relationship with the Minister’s advisers.

It can signal support for the party in a low-key way, important for groups who don’t want to be seen as politically aligned.  Attending a dinner for a policy debate looks less overtly political than providing a direct donation and is also easier to keep from shareholders or the general public.

When political parties lodge their return to the Australian Electoral Commission, they are not required to identify organisations or individuals attending their party’s fundraising events. This means that companies can support political parties via fundraisers without making their donation public.

Of course, any form of political donation is ultimately about seeking influence and promoting the interests of the donor above those of others.

This is rightly a controversial issue and there have been calls from such diverse sources as the Australian Shareholders Association, former Qantas Chief and top bureaucrat John Menadue and legal experts for reform of Australia’s system of political donation.

These critics of political donations raise the equity issues involved with any type of political fundraising.  Not all interest groups can afford to spend thousands of dollars trying to influence politicians over some canapés. Equally not all groups choose to engage with politicians this way.

In the complex world of modern politics, it can be difficult to draw a line between political donations and specific policy outcomes. As the tobacco lobby has found out over the past two decades, no amount of money can stop the tide of regulation and policy making when both the evidence and public opinion are clearly aligned.

Conversely, some of the most significant recent policy changes in the health and social policy arena (Denticare and the NDIS) were not the result of big-spending industries throwing money at political parties but were achieved through careful campaigning, bolstered by strong supporting evidence and clear public support.

However, it would be naïve to think that political donations have no impact on policy and funding decisions.

Australia is a long way from the multi-million dollar “Super PACs” of the USA, but the Coalition’s recent dinner (and other similar events) which blur the line between fundraising and policy making are opening up an important debate about the future of political donations in the Australian political system.

• Disclaimer: Jennifer Doggett provides consultancy services to Canberra-based government relations firm Cmax Communications.