Opinion

Rob Oakeshott: How big business hijacked parliament

The rules are simple: fight the bastards, bankroll the other side of politics, cause them damage until they learn to ignore treasury and finance advice and start listening instead to that grubby leveller in politics – money.

Whether it’s tax or carbon or gaming, this is the policy inertia of Australia today. Money is beating our long-term standard of living to death. It has sent many necessary policy reforms to the doghouse, and it keeps many others on the short chain. 

Our key decisions for the future of Australia are now being outsourced at a level never before seen. Parliamentary democracy is going through its own sort of privatisation. Bigger dollars come into the party coffers at exactly the same time as less and less of the necessary work gets done. We are trapping ourselves. 

I lost in politics to money. I poked power in the eye and got an almighty punch on the nose in return. I didn’t see the punch coming with the size and force it did. I didn’t see it coming because sociology textbooks don’t talk about conflict theory being used by the powerful to create dissent and division and uncertainty in a community. Conflict theory is supposed to be the tool of the marginalised and disadvantaged. It’s the basis of the concept of unionism, and the concept of street protest.

But if this were all true, why was Australia’s richest woman getting off a bus to protest in the streets as if she were the one who was marginalised?

Why were other high-profile mining magnates, and other top-end-of-towners, photographed weekly in their hi-vis safety wear, presenting themselves as workers in an effort to be considered power-poor? 

Why did the late Paul Ramsay, the Coalition’s biggest donor in 2010, instruct his well-paid workforce to manufacture a street protest outside my electorate office, to be captured as a lead story on Prime Television, which happened to be owned by the same late Paul Ramsay?

Why were there quite radical and repeatedly shrill calls for an “early election” in the Murdoch media, based on the completely false premise that an elected parliament that didn’t suit its business interests was, of all things, undemocratic?

Oh, how poor and marginalised and disadvantaged this mob were, and are. But oh, how skilful they were, and are, in the use of conflict theory for their own return.

Throughout that period of 2010-13, I met and personally dealt with six of the top 10 richest people in Australia. I did not ask to meet any of them. They chased me. They all had plenty of access. And for what it is worth, they were all individually a pleasure to deal with. They were privately charming, and tremendous advocates for their particular interest. But as a collective noun of wealth in Australia today, a whale of money, or a pride of oligarchs, their behaviour throughout that period confirms for us all just how much they are intimately involved with, and crawling all over, our democracy.

Privately, they all had access. Yet, publicly, they behaved as if the sky were falling. 

In truth, real democracy was the strongest it has been for a long time in that 43rd parliament, because no one, or nothing, owned it.

But business used a new corporate conflict theory to allow our parliament to be perceived as undemocratic. They did it successfully, and now we have the select few back in their happy place of command and control. The pussycat called Power is purring again.

The great failure of our time is that right when we had the chance to embed the original version of real democracy, we blinked, and have now stepped closer to a privatised model of democracy than ever before.

In policy, the example of this privatisation was climate change. In 2010, my thinking was simple and fairly brutal. I knew Peter Costello had tried and failed in 2001 to get an emissions trading scheme through cabinet. I knew former prime ministers John Howard and Kevin Rudd had both taken the advice of scientists and economists seriously and promoted an emissions trading scheme at the 2007 election. Famously, I knew the bipartisan deal was nearly done in 2009 between Rudd and then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

My view at the time was that bipartisanship on evidence and commonsense wasn’t really under threat, and that the 2010 election idea of Direct Action was just a cobbled together marketing tool intended by the Coalition to neutralise the electoral pain and stop the internal bleeding among its own ranks. I formed the view that the best thing to do was to help ram through an ETS, clean up the edges as we went, and then let the scientists and economists, as well as logic, commonsense and evidence, win the politics.

How wrong I was. I lived the birth of the false tax debate. I watched it grow, I watched it win. I watched an emissions trading scheme get reframed as a carbon tax and die as a consequence. I watched failure at the hand of a soldout democracy bent to the will of big business. I watched the public interest get pummelled by private interests.

It is my view that it is actually biodiversity loss that is Australia’s greatest environmental challenge, yet trying to initiate any sort of discussion or programs in this regard has politicians now running that same country mile.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if I were dropped back into 2010 and had the opportunity again, I would make biodiversity loss the top of the pyramid of what we were trying to address, instead of focusing on the science of an odourless and invisible gas. By doing so, community engagement on some simple facts, such as the high chance of the koala species collapse in our lifetime without behaviour change, would be an easier “pub” conversation than the more challenging discussion around gases and climate science.

More importantly, the broader suite of tools required would have also been part of an easier discussion: the need for a national bio-banking scheme; national biodiversity corridors of scale and significance; the use of biomass and the role that trees can play in energy security and emissions trading; a serious, as opposed to piecemeal, crack at invasive species; and, importantly, a discussion of how urban planning can better embrace biodiversity gains. All things that we can see and feel. All things that are hard to deny are real. 

Doing some of this broader work could have lowered the temperature on carbon politics, and we would have had, and still could have, a much greater chance of getting a long-term ETS. It would have been a broader, more bipartisan conversation on a number of fronts, reducing the chance for all the concentrated hoopla of $100 lamb roasts and Whyalla wipeouts. 

But we didn’t have that. Short-term business interests won. The longer-term Australian interest lost. 

It’s not complicated, the way business operates in Canberra. Political donation laws in Australia are so loose, it’s not rocket science to see what is happening. Ten thousand dollars can be donated before anyone even has to declare anything. With political parties structured around state branches, in real terms it is more than $100,000 before anyone has to start declaring.

In 2011, the year when real democracy was peaking, political donations surged up to about $110-$130 million for each of the two major parties. Power was threatened and it was responding how it knew best: donate to win back control. Sadly, political parties took the money and ran. 

In their defence, they are in an “arms race” for money. They both benefit from the “political donation” silence at the heart of policy inertia in Australia today. Neither can be the first to move as it leaves them exposed. Advertising is a powerful tool at the ballot box.

Hats off to Packer, Forrest, Ramsay, Murdoch, Rinehart, et al. Their private charm offensive mixed with the public mischief of new corporate conflict theory – business-led street protest and the American campaign technique of “astroturfing” – was highly successful. The key to their success is the lax political donation laws at all levels in Australia, a system where decision-making is controlled completely by a select unelected few. 

The mining tax ads that ran in high rotation were powerful influencers. It was a $20-odd million spend that kept a hundred times that in the pockets of a few. And it remains just one of many examples where Australians are screwing themselves, victims of a clever strategy that muddies the waters of policy reform.

So next time you vote, add political donation reform to the list of items you are voting on. And for the next few elections, please make it a priority. The commercial influence on public decision-making is more important than anything else right now. Australia is losing its future unless we change.

This column is based on a speech delivered for The Wheeler Centre.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Capitalist punishment". Subscribe here.

Rob Oakeshott
was a member of state and federal parliament for 17 years. He is the author of The Independent Member for Lyne.

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