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Revealed: job-swapping between public servants and fossil fuel lobbyists

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The Conversation

File 20180301 36686 12oxhc0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

A building full of revolving doors? Ben McCarthy/Wikimedia Commons

Last month Australia slipped further down the rankings in the international corruption index. Among a wide range of factors cited by Transparency International was Australia’s “inappropriate industry lobbying in large-scale projects such as mining”, as well as “revolving doors and a culture of mateship”.

As several high-profile cases have recently revealed, the close ties that continue to exist between senior politicians, former political staffers, and the big end of town have had a real and lasting impact on the perception of political transparency in Australia.

Two examples from 2016 and 2017 clearly illustrate the extent to which such relationships can have a toxic effect on democracy.

During last year’s Queensland election campaign, the ABC revealed that Cameron Milner, former Queensland secretary of the ALP and chief of staff to federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, had been the main lobbyist and go-between for Indian mining giant Adani.

Earlier in the year, it was reported that former federal trade minister Andrew Robb walked straight out of his ministerial position in July 2016 to take up a lucrative position as a “high-level consultant” for Chinese-owned company Landbridge.

This was the same firm that Robb had publicly defended when it controversially acquired a 99-year lease for the Port of Darwin in 2015.

The cases of Milner and Robb not only suggest that such influence-peddling is politically bipartisan in nature, but that it can happen both during and after the relevant parties have left their positions in the public sector.

Revolving door or golden escalator?

Much has been made in recent weeks of the provisions contained in the federal parliamentary code of conduct. Among other things, the code bans former ministers from lobbying the federal government for 18 months after leaving office.

But given the fact that no current or former minister has been deemed to be non-compliant (including Robb), one could be forgiven for concluding that the code is simply a cover for business as usual.

Several prominent public figures and NGOs, including The Australia Institute and urban planner Julie Walton, have argued that the mining, energy, property and gaming industries enjoy favourable treatment in exchange for their generous political donations, or at least are perceived to.

There’s also widespread public acceptance that the resources industry was instrumental in removing Kevin Rudd from the prime ministership in 2010.

What is less well known is the extent to which big business has sought to bend the will of the body politic by directly influencing the formation of government policy.

This is not just done through lobbying. All of these industries have been proactive in courting individuals who hold public office in relevant portfolios as potential allies and future employees.

Some are employed as lobbyists, some as advisors, some as consultants, and others as board members and company directors. This allows these industries to shape tax and regulatory regimes in their favour, and to drive major government and private sector investments in their own infrastructure.

The phenomenon we seek to highlight has previously been referred to as the “revolving door” between the political and corporate realms.

But although there is ample evidence for these kinds of arrangements, on closer inspection they look more like a golden escalator. The financial rewards on offer in the private sector can dwarf anything received by senior politicians and public servants while in office.

For evidence of this dynamic, we need only to look to former resource ministers Martin Ferguson and Ian Macfarlane.

Ferguson took up a position as a non-executive director of British Gas just weeks after leaving federal politics in September 2013, having already become chair of an advisory board for Australia’s oil and gas peak body, APPEA in October.

Macfarlane, meanwhile, was appointed chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council only four months after leaving federal politics.

Current and past resource industry employment of former staffers of Ian Macfarlane (Federal Minister for Resources and Energy, Sep 2013 – Sep 2015), Martin Ferguson (Federal Minister for Resources and Energy, Nov 2007 – Mar 2013) and Campbell Newman (Queensland Premier, Mar 2012 – Feb 2015) over the past decade, and employment for Macfarlane and Ferguson since leaving office. Corporate entities are shown in purple, staffers in green, and politicians in orange.

The ‘service elevator’

There is another strategy that has also been used to great effect by the fossil fuel and mining industries in recent years. It is also used by powerful corporations in other economic sectors such as agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, gaming, and construction.

The industries in question either hire former ministerial staffers and policy analysts with relevant knowledge and expertise to advise them, or they encourage their own former staffers to take on positions as government advisers while maintaining close links with them.

When acting as staffers, these individuals are free to operate outside of public scrutiny and regulatory reach. This allows them to move seamlessly between the offices of powerful political figures and some of Australia’s largest resource companies and industry bodies.

We have compiled a database of more than 180 individuals who have moved between positions in the fossil fuel and/or mining industries and senior positions in government, or vice versa, over the past decade. This includes senior political staffers working for prime ministers and state premiers.

We have also found examples of key ministers hiring individuals straight from the fossil fuel and mining industries, who then return to those industries straight after leaving government.

This revolving door might be better dubbed a “service elevator”, ensuring that “delivery of the goods” happens away from public scrutiny.

Organisations highlighted in red have the most former public sector employees in their company. Mai Lam/The Conversation NY-BD-CC, CC BY-ND

Questions of influence

Australian governments clearly need to enact laws at the state and federal levels to prevent these kinds of activities.

We know that such legislation is not without precedent, and is therefore politically feasible. For example, in Ireland, the cooling-off period was recently set at one year, whereas in Canada it is two years and in the United States, five years.

But it is not just the rules around political lobbying that require reform. Many other areas of political activity are also in dire need of attention, including much stronger disclosure laws in relation to campaign financing and political party donations, and a significant increase in public funding for political parties, apportioned on the basis of electoral support.

Most significant, however, is the need for a federal anti-corruption body with independent investigative powers.

While there has been resistance from the major political parties to the creation of a federal anti-corruption watchdog, it would appear that the tide is turning. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently countenanced such a move, as did Bill Shorten.

If our political leaders are not prepared to provide more transparency and accountability with respect to government decision-making, then we can only assume the resource extraction industries will continue to call the shots on Australia’s transport and energy policies.

Our collective failure to deal with these issues will ensure that the increasingly dire predictions about planetary boundaries being breached over the next few decades will indeed be realised.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.  

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  • neroden

    Forget lobbying. You need to prohibit former ministers from taking any sort of paid jobs *whatsoever* with the companies they regulated for five years after leaving government.

    Why? Because it’s very easy for a company to wink-wink-nod-nod indicate that if the minister issues the “right” regulations, he will be given a cushy sinecure later.

    • Joe

      Retiring Ministers receive wonderful pensions to see them off comfortably ex-politics. If they still want to be active in public life then let them be involved in say, charitable organisations and foundations. These people have high public profiles that can be tapped to advance the greater good.

  • Ray Miller

    The worst thing about this type of corruption is that it flows down to all other aspects of our community and is seen at the norm.
    It is also a very interesting observation that the energy sector is high on the preferred list, no wonder as Alan Pears points out the massive hole we are in.

  • John Saint-Smith

    Good to know that Australians are still beating the Americans at the corruption game. In the US the fossil fuel giants have to pretend to be at arm’s length, just providing electoral support for politicians, but here we can be confident that our politicians, especially those from the Labor Party are lying their arses off when they pretend to defend the environment and champion climate change mitigation. No wonder they refuse to cooperate with the Greens – just doing their bosses’ bidding before the big pay-off.

    If anything will sink us, politically, financially and most critically ecologically, it is our self-seeking politicians.

  • Tosh Szatow

    The same revolving doors and echo chambers apply to the clean energy sector. Best to look at these things with two eyes open (not just one eyed)

    • DevMac

      Doesn’t matter what industry it is. Wherever there’s money, there will be corruption.

      The clean energy industry doesn’t have anywhere near the ‘political weight’ (read: monetary influence) of the fossil fuel energy industry, though, so what you’re saying is true, but the extent would be much less.

  • MaxG

    Nothing new here; the so-called lobbying is just the Orwellian word for corruption… one reason I despise large corporations of all colour. How far or low this goes, check out Iowa just passed legislation to force store to carry caged eggs… free market, democracy, what? https://theintercept.com/2018/03/02/consumers-are-revolting-against-animal-cruelty-so-the-poultry-industry-is-lobbying-for-laws-to-force-stores-to-sell-their-eggs/ I hope consumer boycott these stores altogether.
    It just adds argument to my idea of becoming very self-reliant in food production.

  • Andy Simpson

    Game of Mates (https://gameofmates.com/) describe this type of corrupt (if not legally) behaviour in detail across several other areas of government. Depressing, but it is well written and does propose several alternatives to the current pigs-at-the-trough situation. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who votes or pays taxes.

  • DevMac

    An example of irony:

    The only way to solve it is if the very people that benefit from it legislate appropriate investigative powers and punishments that actually add up to more than the potential benefit.

    Given that this is a problem in the first place, it means that the political will to solve it doesn’t exist.

    The golden escalator needs some red stains.

  • Gregory Hans Moeliker

    The corruption these politicians perpetuate means that the whole country is negatively affected as funding for the right projects and the direction of the country is diverted to support their vested interests. As I say politicians shouldn’t get paid, they should do it for the benefit of the people. I don’t vote for the party to win, I vote for the party that will provide oversight of over the party that will get in. We should all do this as the same old “dickheads” continue to get in.