How corporate influence is threatening our democracy

Australia is wildly out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to the level of corporate influence allowed in the Australian political system, a new report shows.

Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) research has revealed how the fossil fuels, tobacco and gambling industries use their wealth to have an outsized influence on Australian politics.

Selling Out: How powerful industries corrupt our democracy outlines how these three industries, in particular, are taking advantage of Australia’s lack of integrity laws.

Australia is falling behind other advanced democracies when it comes to regulating corporate influence over our federal politicians. What is considered illegal and corrupt conduct overseas is often permissible in Canberra.

The HRLC found that these industries influenced politicians in three key ways – contributing financially to political parties, lobbying and running public attack campaigns in elections. And this in turn paved the way for political decisions that could benefit the coffers of these industries over the health and safety of Australians.

Read: Will pork-barrelling cost the government the election?

“Australians support reforms to make our communities less addicted and our environment healthier, but the fossil fuels, tobacco and gambling industries are building political power to block sensible regulation,” HRLC senior lawyer Alice Drury says.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. There are solutions that our parliament could pass tomorrow to make our democracy stronger, and ensure our elected representatives listen to us, the people.”

Gambling addiction is a major issue in Australian society, affecting individuals and families across the country. You could even say it’s our national addiction.

Estimates suggest that Australians lost approximately $25 billion on various forms of gambling in the 2018-19 financial year, representing the largest per capita losses in the world.

However, politicians seem reluctant to impose many restrictions on this industry. Poker machines are near ubiquitous in pubs and clubs across the nation and large casinos have been able to flagrantly break the law.

Read: Top election issues for older Australians

“This report shows how that [regulation] is simply not happening in Australia – the gambling industry can protect casinos which break the law, have ministers removed from portfolios and slow down reforms designed to keep organised crime out of community spaces,” says Dr Kate da Costa, head of campaigns for the Alliance for Gambling Reform (AGR).

“We know the community supports reforms to poker machines and sports gambling advertising – this report clearly spells out why those reforms are not happening.”

Similarly, the tobacco industry wields enormous political power in Australia, despite the public’s best efforts to reduce smoking and the health issues it causes.

Political donations from the tobacco industry should be prohibited immediately by the federal parliament and all state and territory parliaments,” says Maurice Swanson, chief executive of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health (ACSH).

“These donations corrupt the political process and undermine and delay the passage of legislation that would significantly reduce smoking in Australia, and the thousands of preventable cases of lung cancer, heart disease and serious lung disease that occur every year in this country.”

Read: Scott Morrison’s ministerial team looks far from match-fit

Just days ago, Australia recorded its largest annual drop ever in the global Corruption Perception Rankings Index (CPRI), falling four points on the 100-point scale from 77 to 73.

On the CPRI scale, the higher the number the less corruption is present in a country’s political system. While a score is 73 is still good compared to most of the world, for Australia it represents an alarming decline.

In 2012, Australia was ranked seventh in the world on this index but today ranks 18th. This drop in respectability is similar to that seen in countries such as Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Venezuela.

Before the 2019 federal election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison campaigned on a promise to introduce a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for Australia’s political system.

Three years later, on the eve of the next election, Mr Morrison has still not implemented the policy as promised. Instead, he introduced to parliament a proposal that law experts described as Australia’s “weakest watchdog” in the making.

Can the nation afford to keep heading down this path of corruption and cronyism or is it time to chart a new path?

What do you think should be done about corporate influence in Australian politics? Do you think it’s a problem at all? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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