The Political Weekly: Bill Shorten’s latest zingers, the ‘wait in the car’ mystery, and Christine Milne’s WTF moment.
When Christine Milne unexpectedly announced her resignation as leader of the Australian Greens on Wednesday, many political observers had the same thought – did she jump or was she pushed?
The veteran conservationist politician hasn’t had the easiest of times since succeeding the iconic Bob Brown as leader of the party three years ago.
At the time, then Senator Brown had built the party into a clear alternative for voters at the progressive end of the political spectrum.
As a result, Labor voters defected in droves, giving the Greens its biggest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election.
Following Mr Brown’s departure in 2012, Ms Milne faced the challenge of maintaining that vote at a time when the Greens were variously being blamed for dragooning Prime Minister Julia Gillard into bringing in a carbon tax, risking the lives of boat people by refusing to support the Malaysia solution, or putting protest before principle.
The Green vote had started to drop even before Mr Brown had retired, but a number of poor state and territory election results for the Greens sparked speculation that Ms Milne’s leadership was at risk.
This speculation did not abate in early 2013, despite Ms Milne using a National Press Club address to end the relationship forged between the Greens and Labor, that allowed Ms Gillard to form government.
The Greens leader hoped the very public divorce would reduce the criticism levelled at the party for supporting the Gillard minority government.
The tactic did not work.
While the Greens famously prefer to keep their dirty laundry to themselves, recriminations and other destabilising comments were fed to the media after the party’s vote dropped from 11.8 to 8.6 per cent at the 2013 federal election.
Along with news that six of the party’s “most senior staffers” had left, rumours swirled that the party’s Adam Bandt had been planning to challenge Ms Milne for the leadership.
Another notably ambitious Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, told journalists after Ms Milne was re-elected as leader that her party had “just returned a leader that would see the party marching to a slow death”.
One of the staffers who left at that time was Ms Milne’s former chief of staff Ben Oquist, who cited “fundamental differences of opinion in strategy” for his departure.
During his time as chief of staff to Ms Milne, and before that in the same role with Mr Brown, Mr Oquist was on the board of the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank originally established by Clive Hamilton.
Mr Oquist is now a strategist with the organisation, which is headed by another former Greens staffer, Richard Denniss, who hasn’t held back in his public criticism of Ms Milne or in suggesting the need for generational change in the party’s leadership.
Although not an extension of the Greens, by any measure, Mr Oquist and Mr Denniss have since the federal election articulated the concerns about Ms Milne that Greens MPs will not for fear of being seen to be no better than the destabilisers in the “old” parties.
When the leader decided not to negotiate with the Abbott government on increasing the petrol tax excise, it was Mr Denniss who was reported echoing the words of the Greens MPs who wondered why an anti-pollution party wouldn’t support increasing a tax on petrol.
Mr Denniss went even further, criticising Senator Milne for essentially cutting the Greens out of having any influence and giving the balance of power to Clive Palmer, because her “political strategy is to oppose things that Tony Abbott introduces” even when “Abbott proposes things that Greens support” such as “petrol taxes, increasing taxes on high-income earners, the PPL”.
Of course, the Australia Institute head would know, because Mr Oquist facilitated the Mr Palmer/Al Gore press conference that led to the PUP leader committing to save the renewable energy target.
Behind the scenes, under the cover of the Greens’ fabled solidarity, Mr Bandt is said to have been the main leadership agitator, while Ms Hanson-Young’s frequent attempts at challenging for leadership roles have made her intentions patently clear.
To many observers, it was merely a matter of time before Ms Milne acceded to the combined forces of internal pressure from her colleagues and external pressure from critics like those at the Australia Institute, and declared an end to her time as leader.
However, as word emerged that some Greens MPs, such as Mr Bandt, had not known that Ms Milne was going to resign, and therefore had no time to do the numbers, it became clear that the wily conservationist had got the jump on her detractors.
The election of two Milne supporters, Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam, as co-deputy leaders, also made it clear that the Melbourne MP’s confidence in becoming the next Greens’ leader was not shared by the majority of his colleagues.
Originally published at The New Daily
Have the Greens become part of the establishment? It would appear so, judging by their push to deny micro parties the use of preference harvesting to get elected to the Senate.
The Greens, along with the major parties and Senator Nick Xenophon, have recommended in a parliamentary review of the 2013 federal electionthat party registration and Senate voting rules be changed. These changes will make it more difficult for micro parties to run and almost impossible for their candidates to be elected.
Reform of Senate voting has been on the Greens’ agenda for a while, with former party leader Bob Brown unsuccessfully calling for such changes in 2010. Brown advocated the scrapping of group voting tickets, the mechanism used for preference harvesting, because allowing “parties to lodge … their choice of preference flow has led to the dark art of manipulation of preferences for unwarranted electoral advantage”.
But what is “unwarranted electoral advantage” exactly? Is it an election result that is not truly reflective of voters’ intentions, such as being elected with only a small amount of the primary vote?
At the last federal election Motoring Enthusiasts’ Ricky Muir was elected with 17,122 votes, or 0.51 per cent of the state’s vote. In 1996 Bob Brown was elected to the Senate having secured 26,830 votes, or 8.68 per cent*, of the less populous state’s Senate vote. Both MPs made a start that fell considerably short of the 14.3 per cent quota. Obviously other parties’ preferences helped Brown get over the line, yet he describes the current system that allows parties to dictate preferences as “corrupting”.
Perhaps the issue is more that while the Greens rely on leaching the disenfranchised progressive vote from Labor, they are unhappy that a similar splintering of the right-wing vote away from the Coalition has delivered the balance of power to arch conservatives on a number of occasions.
One such conservative, Family First’s Steve Fielding, beat the Greens’ candidate for Victoria in 2004 after benefiting from a preference deal with Labor. Bob Day, the current representative of Family First in the Senate, was elected in 2013 as the direct result of a preference deal personally negotiated by Brown with representatives of the micro parties, Palmer United Party and Nick Xenophon.
Senator Day is only one of the eight crossbenchers who have made the Greens almost redundant in the current parliament – unless the progressive party chooses to vote with the Coalition Government on legislation, which is usually unlikely. Of that eight, only Muir and Day were elected predominantly through preference harvesting.
Other than risking the wrath of their constituency by doing deals with the Government, the only other way the Greens can be relevant in the current parliament is to make allegiances with Labor and at least three members of the crossbench to block Government legislation.
This is a long way from the power-broking position the party held during the Gillard era. Nevertheless, such allegiances can be achieved, as the Labor-initiated but Xenophon-led “coalition of common sense”demonstrated last year.
It’s all very well for the Greens, and the major parties for that matter, to claim the proposed reforms would make Senate voting more “democratic” by returning power over preferences to the voters. In reality, the changes merely strengthen the position of the established parties, including the Greens.
The only voters who seemingly demonstrate independence in allocating their preferences are Greens voters. Labor and Coalition voters are more likely to follow their party’s how-to-vote instructions, and these instructions have increasingly directed preferences away from the Greens (especially after the Greens first lower house MP Adam Bandt was elected on Liberal preferences in 2010).
The Greens are hopeful that if Senate voting was changed to optional preferential voting, Labor and Coalition voters might be more inclined to allocate their preference to the Greens – even if it was against the major parties’ wishes. Perhaps that would occur.
However, the ABC’s resident psephologist Antony Green has calculated that under such an optional preferential voting system, the last federal election would have produced two more Senate seats for the Coalition, two more for Labor, one more for Xenophon and one less for the Greens, leaving only three independents/others. So it’s easy to see why the major parties and Xenophon are keen on the changes too.
The proposed Senate voting changes are less about democracy than they are about keeping our democracy politically “tidy”. It would be fair to say established political interests wouldn’t have advocated these changes if non-establishment senators hadn’t used their balance of power to hold governments to ransom or thwart parliamentary opposition in recent years.
The calculation would undoubtedly be that the less micro party and independent MPs there are in parliament, the less chance there is for marginal interests to have a say. It’s only when such a marginal voice is that of an honourable and thoughtful Senator like Ricky Muir, that the calculation becomes nonsensical and transparently about protecting vested interests.
The Greens like to differentiate themselves by describing the major parties as old and obsolescent, but they too have become part of the mouldering establishment. By resisting the pathways for fresh talent to enter the parliament with protestations about “improving” democracy, they are doing little more than defending the status quo.
We already know the line between public and private has become impossibly thin since the advent of the internet and our avid uptake of social media.
Potential employers can not only check the veracity of jobseeker claims, but also what they do after hours, the “type” of people they associate with, and the extent to which they’re more diligent at skolling beers than getting to work on time. The same goes for people looking for that one special person (or not, as the case may be) and parents checking up on their kids or keeping in touch with extended families.
Enhanced privacy settings have certainly helped to reduce any unwanted snooping that this online exposure can invite, but selective access to one’s social media profiles can be a two-edged sword if you’re a politician trying to engage online.
Any parliamentarian worth their salt knows online engagement is a two-way exercise. It’s not just about broadcasting the latest press release or speech on Twitter or Facebook, but making a genuine connection with voters. This interaction requires participating in real, unscripted conversations, which is a risk in itself. However the more savvy MPs seek to heighten the authenticity of their online presence by posting photos of themselves – often accompanied by their families – doing “normal” things to demonstrate how in touch they are with the “real world”.
This of course exposes politicians’ family members to a level of accessibility and scrutiny unknown before our lives went online. During John Howard’s time as PM, we barely saw his children other than on the podium on election night.
The tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.
This changed as political strategists on both sides of the fence, increasingly enamoured with US-style politics, started to emulate the Yanks’ habit of wheeling out politicians’ wives and children to increase their candidates’ “family credentials”. Hence the appearance of Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese spruiking her husband’s wares at a Labor campaign launch. The Rudds took this tactic even further during one of Rudd’s non-challenges against his successor Julia Gillard, when voters were treated to magazine articles and social media blitzes from both Therese and their daughter Jessica.
To date, only Tony Abbott has emulated the Rudds’ family-campaign efforts, rarely being seen on the election campaign trail without one or more of his telegenic daughters in an apparent effort to improve his standing with female voters.
This tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.
So we were treated during the last federal election campaign to an “expose” based on a Facebook photo of Rudd’s son smoking a cigar, apparently undermining the increase in cigarette tax that had ostensibly just been imposed to offset the burden placed by smokers on the health budget (as opposed to being a relatively painless tax grab).
And the intrusion into Frances Abbott’s private academic files (at the encouragement of senior colleagues and a media outlet) could arguably have had much less media cachet if she’d not been an almost permanent fixture alongside Tony Abbott during the election campaign, thereby becoming a proxy for attacks on her father.
In both these instances, a case can at least be made for the private lives of political children to be exposed to media scrutiny in the name of the public interest.
Yet there is no similar justification for the splashing of a toddler’s photo in the news media today simply because of the colour of her dress. The photo was apparently sourced from the public Facebook page of Greens Senator Larissa Waters, and published in order to demonstrate Waters’s alleged hypocrisy by equating her concern about gendered toys to being a “war against pink”.
While the photo was indeed in the public domain, its use in this way bordered on the irresponsible.
The actions of a child do not invalidate the political positions of their parents and it is nonsense to suggest so.
To reduce any future temptation to make that allegation, perhaps it is time to reconsider the role of MPs’ children when it comes to election campaigning and ongoing political life. Even US President Barack Obama may be inclined to rethink the merit of including his daughters in “benign” photo opportunities since the Thanksgiving Turkey incident.
Having a politician for a parent is tough enough: parliamentarian parents are rarely at home and even when they are home they’re either on the phone, glued to the television, or simply tired and cranky. MPs’ kids shouldn’t have to contend with specific media attention because they’ve been used to enhance their parent’s political brand, nor should they be used in an attempt to bring a politician down.
It’s time to end the use of kids as political props, and for campaign strategists to concede the value of doing so is outweighed by the additional burden it places on politicians’ families.
Fear and hubris. These seem to be the key driving forces behind budget deliberations as the Australian Parliament careens ever closer to the new Senate configuration on July 1.
Fear of political irrelevancy; fear of voter opprobrium and retribution; delusions of voter apathy and complacency; and over-estimations of voter malleability; each of these self-indulgent forces are shaping the budget that will ultimately impact on Australians’ lives. And in the process sound policy has been relegated to a distant second place.
At this point it’s hard to know whether yesterday’s decision by the Greens to oppose the reintroduction of fuel excise indexation was an act of fear or hubris.
The minor party has learnt well from the demise of the Australian Democrats, as well as their own ill-fated power-sharing experiences with the Gillard and Giddings governments. They know their supporters want the party to stick to principled protest rather than dilute those principles through negotiated outcomes.
And if they need reminding, the Greens have to look no further than the tongue-lashing many supporters gave them after allowing the Abbott Government to abolish the debt ceiling, even though the deal included concessions that improved the transparency of the Government’s decision-making processes.
Greens Leader Christine Milne says one of the reasons her party will oppose the indexation of fuel excise is because it will disproportionately affect those who have no access to public transport. This appeared to be less of a concern in 2011 when the Greens attempted to have the carbon tax imposed on fuel. Milne’s other criticism is that the funds raised will be used to build roads that will result in more congestion. This contention has no basis in fact.
Both justifications are merely a ruse. Now that the deep unpopularity of the first Abbott budget is being confirmed by successive opinion polls, the Greens have more likely concluded there is too much political risk involved in letting budget measures through – even those that accord with their principles – lest they become inadvertently splashed by the waves of voter opprobrium.
But that’s where the matter becomes vexed for the protest party. Given the choice between realising a policy ambition to put a price signal on fuel, considering carbon emissions from transport are the second highest contributor to Australia’s total emissions, and depriving Abbott of a budget win, the Greens chose the latter.
Fear of being seen to be complicit in Abbott’s budget seemingly overrode any motivation to see a version of their policy implemented.
Or was the decision a result of the party’s young guns seeing more political capital to be gained from simple obstructionism than policy purity? This theory aligns with Adam Bandt’s “Bust the Budget” campaign, which is focused on blocking the budget and kicking the Prime Minister out of office by Christmas. It may also be why denials were swiftly issued yesterday to hose down any suggestion that Milne had been overruled by her party on the fuel excise decision.
While a question mark still remains over the Greens’ motivation for opposing the fuel price indexation, there’s no doubt that hubris shaped the budget measure in the first place.
Only a person deluded by pride would assume the channelling of additional funds raised by the increased excise into road-building activities would placate those incensed by the new (albeit small) impost on their cost of living. The same applies to the equally misjudged hypothecation of the proposed GP co-payment to a medical research fund.
The author of those budget measures was being too smart by half, and seriously underestimated the capacity of Australian voters to sense when they are being duped.
Equally, the Prime Minister has been ill-advisedly cocksure in telling Australian voters the fuel excise indexation measure is about road-building, while boasting to US president Barack Obama that it’s a price signal to reduce carbon emissions. Perhaps Abbott thought the internet didn’t stretch as far as the US and those he promised to “axe the tax” would not learn of his defacto carbon tax on transport fuel. A bit less hubris and a lot more fear of electoral consequences might have been the wiser course.
Only Labor seems to have managed so far to withstand the temptation to succumb to the twin indulgences. They’ve declared the ALP will support some budget measures according to merit and alignment with their party’s values.
Unpopular federal budgets have come and gone, but this first Abbott budget could well be remembered as the one that was destroyed from both without and within. If that occurs, fear and hubris will have been responsible for its demise: the over-confidence of those who created it, the fear of those who would be subjected to it, and the political rather than policy motivations of those who tore it down.
In two weeks Australian federal politics will shift slightly on its axis. The balance of power in the Senate will move from being the sole domain of the Australian Greens to also being shared by a motley collection of mostly conservative senators.
In theory the Greens have enough votes to join with the Coalition Government to pass proposed legislation, but in practice they’re unlikely to do so.
Branded on their psyches would be the memory of the Australian Democrats being made to pay dearly for what was seen by voters as an act of collusion with the Howard government when the minor party secured concessions to pass the GST.
The more recent and direct opprobrium received by the Greens for helping the Government to abolish the debt ceiling would also be fresh on their minds.
In fact there’s next to no benefit for the Greens in cooperating with the Abbott Government, not even on policies that are ostensibly in line with their philosophical positions such as paid parental leave and fuel excise. This is why Greens Leader Christine Milne has a clearly marked exit plan for both proposals, aimed at allowing her senators to retain credibility while essentially walking away from party policy.
Having already secured a drop from $150,000 to $100,000 in the upper limit for Prime Minister Abbott’s proposed paid parental leave, Milne has now completely backed away by reserving her party’s decision until the detail of the scheme is known. Milne may even be spared from having to disown PPL if the Nationals succeed in distorting the workplace benefit into another form of welfare for farm-based stay at home mothers.
The Greens leader is on less secure political ground with the Government’s proposal to re-introduce indexation to fuel excise. Milne’s criticism of the tax being hypothecated into road-building instead of public transport ignores the fact that at least one major form of public transport requires modern and safe road networks. It also dismisses those people in rural, regional and remote Australia who have limited access to public transport and continue to endure poor quality roads.
Again, Milne has reserved her party’s decision on fuel excise indexation until the detail is known. But judging from her comments on the weekend, the Greens leader’s exit plan is to demand the introduction of mandatory fuel efficiency standards instead.
The Abbott Government won’t impose a new and costly regulatory impost on what is left of the diminishing Australian car manufacturing industry, so Milne will be provided with her other escape route.
Come July and the new Senate, the Greens may be shunted from centre stage but they’re not about to slip silently into the night. The configuration of the new Senate may actually favour the minor party, transferring much of the responsibility for sealing devilish pacts with the Government to the rest of the crossbench senators and leaving the Greens to return to being a party of protest.
Hence the latest “Bust the Budget” rally held in Melbourne with prominent involvement by Greens MPs and candidates for the upcoming state election.
This also explains the latest Greens’ tactic, flagged by Milne this past weekend, to bring on consideration of the proposed legislation to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation while the Greens still have the balance of power, so that it can be defeated again.
Such a defeat would provide the Abbott Government with the trigger needed to call a double dissolution election. It appears that the Greens, having provided the means by which Abbott could call an election, would then call him a lame duck (or perhaps even accuse him of not having the ticker) until he does so.
This appears to be the basis for Greens MP Adam Bandt sounding eerily like former opposition leader Abbott, by calling for another election and suggesting that Australia could have a new prime minister by Christmas.
However, Abbott won’t be pressured into holding a double dissolution election and he can’t be forced to do so. Even if Labor reversed its historical opposition to the blocking of supply and stopped the appropriation bills in the Senate, Abbott would still only be required to hold a House of Representatives election. Incidentally, the Greens don’t support blocking supply either.
What is more likely is that Abbott will attempt to pass the most unpopular of his proposed changes through the Senate, and once they’ve been twice rejected he will hold these in abeyance. If the polls turn back in his favour, Abbott then has the ability to call a double dissolution election and, on the re-attainment of government, pass all the outstanding double dissolution triggers through the joint sitting of parliament that can be held following a DD election if the senate remains uncooperative.*
So in short, a double dissolution election would be a high stakes game for everyone involved.
The Coalition would risk losing government. The major parties would risk losing seats to the minors, micros and independents. And anyone opposed to the double dissolution triggers would risk them becoming law.
Aside from its alarming treatment of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, one of the other disconcerting things about the first Abbott Government Budget is the counterintuitive behaviour it’s provoked from the major players.
Not only the Coalition government itself, but the Labor opposition and the Greens are behaving in ways that are counter to what voters would normally expect of them.
This is making it more difficult to work out who exactly is on the side of the angels, and could further entrench the unease that voters are currently feeling about the Budget and politics more broadly.
These behavioural contradictions are disturbingly numerous, and seemingly without logic.
For example, anyone with a half a brain would have thought the Government would avoid any perceived or real broken promises after Tony Abbott brutally reframed oath-breaking as a sign of political incompetence during his time as opposition leader.
And yet we find Abbott in recent weeks audaciously denying that clearly breached promises have been flouted; claiming that a previously unknown hierarchy of commitments somehow forgives lesser oaths being sacrificed for major ones; and insisting that Budget decisions that are “consistent with our promises” will suffice.
It seems every pet shop parrot has been squawking about electoral reform since a motley collection of micro and minor party candidates audaciously gamed the Senate preference system in 2013 to ensure at least one of them was elected.
Since then the major parties, some minors and even independents have been calling for the system to be changed so that Senate candidates can no longer be elected with such a small proportion of the vote.
But these proposals are about to become overwhelmed by demands for a different kind of electoral reform. The manner by which political parties raise – and by implication, spend – their funds, has become a much more pressing political problem.
Most adages were coined for good reason, and the one about exercising caution before launching a political inquiry continues to hold weight. Perhaps the then NSW Premier Nick Greiner truly believed the Liberal Party had its own house in order when he established the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988. Or the thought of exposing Labor’s underbelly was simply more tempting than any perceived risk to the Liberals.
The lure of grubby money also appears to defy the boundaries that ostensibly separate Labor from Liberal.
Money is the lifeblood that keeps politics flourishing. Without cash, even the most prospective candidate is unable to compete with those who can afford to print letterbox flyers and posters, set up phone banks, and run advertisements on radio, TV and online. It’s no surprise then that potential political dominance is measured by the girth of one’s campaign war chest.
ICAC has revealed it’s not necessarily the money itself that is corrupting, but the means by which it is acquired. The Royal Commission into union corruption is anticipated to produce a similar result.
As the cost of running campaigns has skyrocketed over successive elections, individual MPs and political parties have become increasingly dependent on the benevolence of big corporates and unions. Such reliance is only a small step away from being beholden to political donors, and corruption is merely another small step from there.
ICAC has laid this bare, and the parties that have been deeply embarrassed, not to mention politically nobbled, by the exposure of venality in their ranks are now belatedly proffering a cacophony of solutions.
On the weekend Liberal Party doyen, Michael Kroger, called for all of parties’ campaign costs to be met with public funding, or at the very least for individual donations to be capped at $1000. Candidates already receive an indexed amount ($2.49 at the 2013 federal election) from the government for every vote received, as long as they obtain at least 4 per cent of first preferences.
This is a sub-optimal solution for democracy as it disadvantages any new entrants to the political circus. They must find the funds to run a campaign and meet the minimum threshold of votes before getting access to any public funds.
Limiting donations as well as campaign expenditure would force parties to be creative in finding inexpensive ways of getting their message to voters.
The Coalition’s Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, has alternatively suggested that all political donations from corporates and unions be banned, leaving only those from individuals. Even if such a proposal survived a likely constitutional challenge from the unions, it wouldn’t prevent wealthy individualsfrom bestowing largesse on their party of choice unless a $1000 cap such as that suggested by Kroger was imposed.
It wouldn’t stop another self-funded multi-millionaire candidate like Clive Palmer, either.
Labor has only tentatively stepped into the field so far, recommending to the parliamentary inquiry that occurs after each federal election that public funding be increased and reforms made to “remove the distorting influence of vested interests and big money politics”. It’s not yet known whether “big money” includes funding from the unions.
The Liberals’ submission to the post-election inquiry is even less forthcoming, particularly in light of the interventions made by Kroger and Pyne. The party claims to be strongly committed to “appropriate disclosure of significant donations to political parties” but wants the requirement for political donors to declare their contributions to be dropped as it duplicates similar disclosures required of the parties.
Finally, considering they have so much less to spend, the Greens’ proposed reforms for electoral funding unsurprisingly aim to “ban corporation donations, place limits on the amount of money individuals can spend on campaigning, lower the threshold for disclosure of donations, rely more on public money and put an overall cap on parties’ election spending.”
A limit on election spending is clearly in the interests of smaller parties, which cannot afford the advertising blitzes bankrolled by the major parties. It could, however, have a broader benefit, removing the need for parties to source ever-increasing funds that ultimately line the pockets of advertising agencies and the commercial television broadcasting networks.
Limiting donations as well as campaign expenditure would force parties to be creative in finding inexpensive ways of getting their message to voters. This would likely involve more grassroots campaigns such as that deployed by Scott Ludlam in the recent WA Senate election re-run and Cathy McGowan’s successful campaign for Indi.
Before their current inquiries are over, ICAC and the Royal Commission into union corruption will cause a world of pain for the Liberals and Labor. It’s impossible to tell the extent of the upheavals that are yet to come, but there is a strong chance that good could come from the disruption.
Reform of electoral funding is the key. An authentic effort to remove the distractions and temptations of big-dollar elections could provide a pathway to refreshed democratic processes involving grassroots campaigns and candidates who genuinely engage with their constituents.
In contrast with Labor’s calls for reforms to prevent future political corruption, and the Liberals’ quiet acceptance of the same, the other main protagonists in NSW’s shady political practices have remained steadfastly silent.
The lobbyists – be they door-openers, influence-wielders or policy-shapers – are employing a small-target strategy in the hope of surviving the rout.
By staying low and keeping quiet, lobbyists are hoping the latest political storm will pass over without their practices being placed under similar scrutiny. For the lobbyists know that any such exposure could lead to other reforms that could seriously curtail their business and livelihoods.
There are essentially three types of lobbyists: consultants, corporates and lobby groups. The consultants work for lobbying firms, charging healthy retainers to keep clients informed about relevant issues and get meetings with politicians when the clients feel the need to be “influential”.
With door-opening and intelligence-gathering being their main concerns, the consultants tend to be former political staffers and retired politicians. Their currency is who they know, which is usually based on who they used to be.
Corporate lobbyists are an in-house version of the consultant, dedicated to providing their company with political information and access. They’re usually former political staffers too, sometimes even poached from the relevant minister’s office to ensure they have the most up-to-date policy knowledge and political contacts. Both consultant and corporate lobbyists tend to rely on political networks and influence to get their desired results.
And then there are the lobby groups, who can be advocates for anything from environmental and social concerns to industry and business interests. These lobbyists spend the bulk of their time trying to influence legislation that impacts on their members’ issues, but their success comes from understanding the interaction of politics and policy.
Lobby groups spend a great deal of time working with government departments with the aim of shaping legislation while it is being developed. They tend only to knock on a politician’s door when there is a need to create political momentum or reinforcement for what they’re trying to achieve at the policy level within departments.
Because of this focus on policy as well as politics, lobby group advocates come from a broader range of backgrounds; some are indeed former political staffers (and there is even a former chief minister running one business lobby group), but there are also ex-journalists and people with business and departmental backgrounds.
By and large all three types of lobbyists are ethical operators. But they ply their trade in a murky world of politics that is governed by power plays, allegiances, and the inevitability of numbers in cabinet, the party room or the electorate.
The challenge for any lobbyist is to be aware of, and use, these elements without actually becoming involved in them. This risk is exacerbated when political and party operatives take on lobbying roles. And it exponentially grows when lucrative government contracts and lobbyist success fees are involved.
Which brings us to ICAC and the unfortunate case of Barry O’Farrell’s misplaced wine.
The government contractor-on-the-make who gifted the Grange to O’Farrell was not only a lobbyist and Liberal Party donor but CEO of a company that depended on government patronage to survive. Nick Di Girolamo lobbied for Liberal government contracts to be granted to AWH, and employed a party official and former senior political staffer (Arthur Sinodinos) as well as another party official and former state MP (Michael Photios) to do the same.
It’s one thing to lobby for preferred policy settings and laws, which is what most lobbyists do. It may be tricky sometimes to get the balance right between good politics and sound policy, but at least the public interest test can be applied in Parliament and the media.
The granting of government contracts is far less transparent, and when there’s no official tender process the transaction can be completely opaque. It’s therefore no surprise that this avenue for using influence and extracting favours, protected as it is from public scrutiny, has been exploited by lobbyists (and politicians) who stand to gain from transactions made under such cover.
It’s commendable that Tony Abbott, John Robertson and the Greens are putting in place reforms in an attempt to inoculate their parties against shady lobbying practices. It’s a good start to insist that party officials cannot also be lobbyists, and that a broader range of relevant pecuniary interests be declared.
But political patronage and the risk of corruption will remain unless the very nature of lobbying evolves from being about access and influence to being about an open and informed government.
To achieve this, lobbying for government contracts should be banned. Former parliamentarians and staffers should be barred from taking on any lobbying roles for at least 12 months, which is a broader proscription than currently set out in the federal government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct. All lobbyists, and not just the consultants, should be required to place their interests on the lobbyists register. And all ministers should keep open diaries so that any member of the public could see which lobbyists had darkened their doorways and on what issues.
Finally, political parties should stop selling access to politicians at exclusive fund-raising dinners and through the business observer programs at their political conferences. Such a hit to the parties’ bottom lines may prove the hardest reform of all but would be necessary to change a political culture that is currently based on access and influence for those who have the capacity to pay.
John Robertson, although breathtakingly hypocritical in light of his own party’s track record, is right to point out the insidious nature of paid influence in today’s political and government processes. But he and all other political leaders need to broaden their scopes.
Political parties may be intent on calling each other out over undue influence and favours, and the media transfixed by every thrust and parry, but unless the actual practice of lobbying is cleaned up, the rest is mere rhetoric.