Democratic governments provide two fundamental functions in the service of a single overriding responsibility. When a government, through the performance of its two functions, betrays the single responsibility it holds, it has lost its mandate to govern. There is a case to be made that our current Coalition government is in exactly this position.
The raison d’etre for democracy, without which the very concept of democratic government would not exist; is to provide a means for the community as a whole to configure the kind of society in which they wish to live. Inevitably this involves winners and losers: government exists primarily to put checks on the powerful and support the weak. Governance is thus about promoting equality. The cut and thrust of politics is about thresholds – how much is too much? How much is too little?
Governments fulfil this basic purpose through the actions of their two primary functions: legislation and national defence. Legislation allows a government to protect its citizenry from internal threats; national defence protects us against external threats. Since coming to power, Tony Abbott’s Coalition government has continued a long history in Australian politics of continuing and sustaining Australia’s military, and in this way the government is carrying out its remit for national defence. Good for them.
In the field of legislation against internal threats to society, their record is not so good.
The Big Bad: the Food Industry
There is a growing recognition amongst public health bodies that food manufacturing and marketing in Australia, and the west in general, is promoting unhealthy eating habits and contributing materially to public health issues such as obesity and diabetes. History has shown us that industries acting counter to the best interests of the people eventually face opposition and attempts at control and harm minimisation by societal groups, and that eventually governments come to the party and assist in such opposition. The tobacco industry is the cause celebre but alcohol and junk food are both likely to follow. It is in this light that on 14 June 2013, COAG – the Council of Australian Governments – announced the implementation of a packaging labelling scheme in Australia. This was the culmination of a long discussion and negotiation process beginning in December 2011.
The Front of Pack food star rating scheme is a compromise solution painstakingly agreed and laboriously (and expensively) developed over two years. COAG is the federal council that brings together Australian state and federal governments in a single body. The scheme, initially intended to be voluntary, will provide consumers an easily understood guide to the nutritional value of their foods. The scheme was brokered between COAG and the Public Health Association with ongoing consultation with the food industry. The food industry, represented by such bodies as “Australian Public Affairs” and the Food and Grocery Council, has cooperated in its development despite being trenchantly opposed to the scheme and seeking any means possible to delay its introduction.
The Abbott government has been accused of deliberately delaying the introduction of the scheme until after State elections in South Australia and Tasmania on 15 March, for exactly this purpose, hoping that the composition of COAG would change sufficiently to allow the cancellation of the agreement. Cancellation or amendment of a COAG agreement requires the majority of State and Federal governments and the current makeup of the council is narrowly in favour of the food labelling scheme.
Included in the star rating scheme is a food ratings website that is intended to provide consumer advice on the nutrition of packaged foods. The website also includes a calculator for food manufacturers to use to calculate the star rating for their packaged foods for voluntary inclusion in labelling. The website was completed and went live on schedule, on February 5 2014. Many public health groups and industry groups were expecting its arrival and awaiting its commencement and it seems a minor miracle that such a website, developed over two years by the public service in conjunction with the Public Health Association, should have been completed on time.
Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash personally intervened to have the site taken offline by 8pm the same night.
Nash’s publicly stated reasons for pulling down the website is that “the website will be confusing for consumers as it uses a star rating that is not yet ‘up and running’.” She has also claimed that it was a draft put online by accident. But it was her chief of staff, married to the owner of the business lobby group Australian Public Affairs, who personally intervened to have the site unilaterally taken offline.
Protecting the interests
This is not the first example of Ms Nash protecting the interests of corporations and business lobbies at the expense of public health or public interest initiatives. It’s tempting to make personal judgements that Ms Nash is not an appropriate candidate for the position of Assistant Health Minister, but she operates within a government with a strong track record of supporting business interests rather than public good regulations that limit them.
Democratic government is designed to serve the interests of the People – not individual people, but the community as a whole. Conservative governments are wont to argue that making life easier for businesses allows them to create more jobs and thus serves the interest of the people, and there is some justification for that; however, there are cases where public interest and corporate interest clearly come into conflict. These include areas of workplace health and safety; of environmental protection; and of protection of public health against goods which, in excess, can be harmful.
In a capitalist society, companies are fighting two major opponents. The first major opponent a business faces is its competitors. Companies need to compete against other companies to turn a profit. The role of government in this is simply to be even-handed; to not preference one company at the expense of others. The litmus test should be whether any proposed change operates across the board. If competition is seen as a public good, then sympathetic treatment may be justifiable towards the underdog. The second major opponent a company faces is the community.
Companies are beholden to the public that buys their goods, but are not above manipulating and mistreating those customers. Marketing might sometimes be righteous – if people have an identified need, promoting a product which can meet that need is perfectly legitimate. But in our materialistic society with many competitors for the purchaser’s dollar, much of marketing is about creating the need prior to seeking to fulfil it.
In the context of coercive or manipulative commerce, government’s role should always fall squarely on the side of the People’s interest. Regulations and laws exist to put limits on what companies can get away with, because it will never be the companies themselves that impose limitations.
An emerging pattern
The cancellation of the food star ratings website is a clear case of corporate interests being favoured at the expense of the People, and a clear abrogation of the politician’s responsibilities. However, it is merely the latest in a long line of government actions from the Abbott government that favour the interests of corporations rather than the People. Prominent examples include:
The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is the grand-daddy of corporate interests into which both recent governments, Labor and Coalition, have been driving us headlong. Whole articles can be written about the TPP – and indeed they have been.
The National Broadband Network. It has been convincingly argued that the main reasons for the Coalition’s opposition to Labor’s model for the NBN is that it will do harm to entrenched corporate interests.
The mining tax. To attempt to redistribute some of the wealth of the largely overseas-based megacorporations involved in strip-mining this country and put it to use across the community and small businesses makes logical sense, but it goes against Coalition ideology of protecting the corporate interests of those who make profits.
An internet filter. The idea of an internet filter is not new; Steven Conroy was rightly excoriated by the left for this idea that is tantamount to censorship. George Brandis’s vision of the filter, however, is not so concerned with protection of children and our moral virtue; it is aimed directly at protecting the existing media corporations, in the guise of protecting copyright. Whilst this is an issue with some justification, you might think we would have learned by now that protecting the rights of intellectual property holders by draconian regulation always hurts both the eventual consumers of media products as well as innocent bystanders who want to use file sharing for legitimate purposes.
Attacks on unions. The Abbott government’s ideological crusade against trade unions is not really about corruption and they are not really friends to the honest worker. The primary and overt aim of the coming Royal Commission is to damage Labor – both its reputation and its source of funding. But the chief outcome in any conflict between corporations and the unions which exist to protect workers and the community from the corporations’ excesses will always be to the detriment of the community. For evidence of the government’s allegiances in this field, look no further than the recent case of SPC, where the government attempted to push SPC to reduce staff conditions to the minimum allowed by the award before any assistance would be possible. In some strange way, this equates in the government’s mind to being “best friend to the honest worker”.
Credit where credit is due
It must be said that the Abbott coalition government seems to genuinely believe that promoting the interests of corporations will be for the good of Australia; they are not being deliberately harmful to the people they govern. But there does not appear to be any kind of “public good” test being applied to decisions. Corporations have the ear of the government through lobby groups and donations, and it certainly seems that the government’s ear has been turned. But when both government and public opinion can be swayed by the corporations that government ought to be protecting the public against, the very purpose of democracy is being subverted. Whether or not the coalition government (and its predecessor in Labor) are being malicious or merely unduly influenced, whether there is corruption or nobly-held ideals, it is the community that suffers. The only question remaining is how far the imbalance will go before the people wake up to the fact that the People and the Corporations are not on the same side?