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Who’s lobbying whom? When it comes to alcohol, tobacco, food and gambling firms, we’re in the dark

By Jennifer Lacy-Nichols and Katherine Cullerton for The Conversation

Melbourne: Alcohol, tobacco, food and gambling industries are among those that lobby government ministers and their advisors to help shape public policy.

But when we looked for details of who’s lobbying whom in Australia, we found government lobbyist registers largely left us in the dark.

In our recently published research, we found these registers were time-consuming to navigate and not detailed enough. The registers couldn’t give us a comprehensive picture of who’s lobbying whom, and how often. Most registers weren’t set up to do so.

We’re concerned about this lack of transparency and the potential for business interests to have undue influence over health policies. This has the potential to diminish trust in government, a risk to democracy.

Why are we concerned about lobbying?

In Australia, anyone can lobby governments and has a right to represent their views. It’s an important part of the democratic process. Yet not everyone has fair access to decision makers.

Some individuals and businesses have outsized and undue influence on government decision making. Lobbying is one form of such influence.

For instance, in the past ten years or so, the alcohol industry has lobbied to delay implementation of pregnancy warning labels.

The gambling industry, which has funnelled millions of dollars into both major political parties, has lobbied to weaken gambling regulations.

The tobacco industry sued the Australian government for its plain packaging laws, after concerted lobbying had failed to derail plans to introduce them. While the lawsuit was unsuccessful, this has deterred other governments from implementing similar laws.

A deep dive into lobbyist registers

Understanding who is seeing which government ministers or their advisors and what they are meeting about is the first step towards protecting against undue political influence and fostering political integrity.

So we decided to look at lobbyist registers to see what they tell us. These registers are like digital phone books, with information about lobbyists. The aim of these registers is to guard against undue or unethical political influence.

Last year, we systematically extracted information from all lobbyist registers in Australia. All jurisdictions, except for the Northern Territory, have one. We:

1. Compared the disclosure requirements of Australian with international registers.

2. Mapped the population of lobby firms, lobbyists and clients that were active in each jurisdiction.

3. Identified which lobby firms represented tobacco, alcohol, gambling and ultra-processed food organisations.

Here’s what we found

Compared to international lobbying registers, Australian registers provided little information. In the United States, for instance, companies must disclose how much money they spend on lobbying.

Only four jurisdictions (federal, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Queensland) provided information about whether a lobbyist had previously worked in government. We need to know this to gauge whether there are any conflicts of interest.

Of the registers that provided this information, few provided enough detail to identify the specific position or the exact date a lobbyist left government. Of particular concern, 96 lobbyists said they both had and had not worked in government, raising questions about oversight of these registers.

Which industry hired the most lobby firms?

Of the four industries we explored, gambling organisations hired the most lobby firms, followed by food, alcohol and tobacco.

Tobacco companies hired lobby firms in six jurisdictions, potentially contravening Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which warns against the tobacco industry lobbying governments.

Most registers are a directory of lobbyists rather than their activities. So, as most registers did not require disclosure of lobbying activities, it is unclear what service the firms provided for the tobacco industry.

What’s missing?

Registers only provide information about “third party” lobbyists that work for professional lobby firms. This excludes many lobbyists working in Australia, such as those working directly for tobacco or alcohol companies or industry associations. In practice, this means a great deal of lobbying is hidden from the public.

Except for Queensland, registers did not provide a record of lobbyist meetings or contact with government officials. This information is important to understand who meets whom, and why.

The lobbyist registers hold no information about how much money is spent on, or received for, lobbying activities.

Lastly, we cannot see which individual lobbyists worked for which client. For firms that represent organisations with different interests, this raises questions about potential conflicts of interest.

Greater transparency and oversight needed

In the past year, Australia has created the National Anti-Corruption Commission and recommendations about reforming political donations. Lobbying reform is the next logical step to ensure an integrated and coherent approach to political integrity.

The Australian government, like others, has a lobbying code of conduct with rules about ethical behaviour. It also stipulates that former members of government are not allowed to work as lobbyists for a “cooling off period” of 12 or 18 months (depending on where someone worked in government).

However, in the lobbying code, “lobbyist” is only understood as those working for third-party firms (such as the ones we analysed). It places no restrictions on ministers or government officials taking jobs with companies they used to regulate, or the consulting sector. Expanding the definition to include all forms of lobbying would help close this loophole.

We also need better enforcement of the rules around lobbying with sanctions and fines imposed to improve compliance.

(Jennifer Lacy-Nichols is a Research fellow at The University of Melbourne and Katherine Cullerton is a Research Fellow, Food and Nutrition Policy, at The University of Queensland)

(Published 13 November 2023, 08:03 IST)

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