Who's in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics

by Danielle Wood, Kate Griffiths

23.09.2018 report

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Powerful and well-resourced business groups, unions and not-for-profits are influencing policy in Australia to serve their interests, sometimes at the expense of the public interest.

Businesses with the most at stake in government decisions lobby harder and get more access to senior ministers.

The gambling and property development industries are hugely over-represented compared to their contribution to the economy.

Major donors to political parties are more likely to get a meeting with a senior minister, and time with ministers is explicitly ‘for sale’ at party fundraising events.

The major parties rely heavily on a handful of big donors to fund their election campaigns: just 5 per cent of donors contributed more than half of the big parties’ declared donations at the 2016 federal election.

Industries at the crosshairs of policy debate sometimes donate generously and then withdraw once the debate has moved on – suggesting that they believe money matters.

More than one-quarter of federal politicians go on to post-politics jobs for special interests, where their relationships can help open doors.

As well as seeking access via backrooms, special interests also try to influence the public debate. Only well-resourced groups such as unions, industry peak bodies and GetUp! can afford major advertising campaigns.

Who’s in the room – and who’s in the news – matters for policy outcomes.

Powerful groups have triumphed over the public interest in some recent debates, from pokies reform to pharmaceutical prices, to toll roads and superannuation governance.

Stronger checks and balances on policy influence are needed, to make Australian politics cleaner and fairer.

Federal ministers should publish their diaries, as state ministers in NSW and Queensland already do. A list of all lobbyists with security passes to federal Parliament House should be made public and kept up-to-date. Big donations to federal political parties should be disclosed in close to ‘real time’, as they are already in Queensland. Federal MPs and their staff should be legally prevented from moving straight into lobbying roles, with the rules enforced by an independent body. And political advertising expenditure should be capped to reduce the ‘arms race’ between parties and their reliance on a few big donors.

Australians don’t like or trust the current system. The changes recommended in this report would improve the quality of policy debate and boost the public’s confidence that policy is being made for all Australians – not just those in the room.

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