There was a time when politicians were advised by an apolitical public service whose department heads and senior management had expertise and a wealth of experience. Departments employed experts in their field and when they required further input, they sought it from other apolitical independent organisations like the CSIRO, the BoM, the Australian National Preventative Health Agency, the Australian Council of Social Services, our universities etc.
But that has all changed.
Now politicians are told what to do by industry lobby groups and advised by spin merchants, image consultants, social media manipulators and advertising people on how to sell it. They engage expensive consultancy groups to produce reports whose terms of reference are not to advise on the best course of action but to find some justification for what the government has decided to do. Reports that have contrary findings are buried, as we saw with the Treasury report on the effects of Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing and on the impact of the government’s proposed deregulation of university fees.
The examples of poor government policy dictated by lobby groups are endless.
The mining lobbyists negotiated a mining tax where they were allowed all sorts of very generous tax deductions upfront – exploration, research and development, accelerated depreciation and diesel fuel rebate for example – which they happily took advantage of whilst actively campaigning for a change in government and the removal of the mining tax before they went into production phase. And they are still using those deductions, and other dubious practices, to avoid paying any tax.
Likewise with carbon pricing. Trade exposed industries gleefully accepted the transitional compensation they were given whilst providing a backdrop for a high-vis-wearing Tony Abbott to spruik his ‘axe the tax’ campaign.
The coal industry has led a very successful attack on the renewable energy industry and, aided by rampant land-clearing, destroyed any gains we had made in emissions reduction.
The hotel and club lobbyists have won the fight against any reforms to address alcohol-fuelled violence and problem gambling. These issues are forgotten as we are bombarded with photos of attractive young women behind bars wearing t-shirts pleading for us to save their job or bands who just want somewhere to play or little children who won’t be able to do athletics if the local club doesn’t make a fortune from their parents gambling.
The gun lobby are engaged in a full court press, buying political influence with minor parties and putting pressure on the majors. In these days of precarious majorities, cash-strapped crossbenchers will gladly use their balance of power to extract concessions for their donors.
Some of them, including the Nationals, still accept donations from the tobacco industry that sued us for our plain-packaging laws. Whilst we eventually won the case, the government refuses to disclose how much the defence cost. Rural Health Minister and deputy leader of the Nationals, Bridget McKenzie, sees no conflict of interest.
The armaments industry more broadly has been successful in convincing our government they should not only spend $400 billion themselves on weapons of war but aim to make us a major manufacturer and exporter because the world sure needs more weapons.
Both major parties are against introducing a tax on sugary drinks despite the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association saying obesity is the leading cause of preventable death or illness in Australia – above smoking. Sugar-sweetened drinks and sugar generally have been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay and bone density problems.
The Australian Beverages Council, the industry’s lobby group, says there is no evidence a tax will do anything to reduce obesity, and it will cost jobs. The Australasian Association of Convenience Stores described the introduction of a sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) tax in the UK as “lazy,” “flawed,” “discriminatory” and “irrational” and has ramped up its campaign to prevent such a tax in Australia.
But that is more about propping up the industry than reality.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found sales of soft drinks in Melbourne’s Alfred hospital dropped 27.6% during a 17-week trial when the price of sugary drinks was increased by 20%. Bottled water sales increased by almost the same amount.
An analysis of sugary-drink purchases in Mexico conducted two years after an SSB tax was introduced found a 5.5% drop in the first year, followed by a 9.7% decline in the second.
The World Health Organisation recommends adults consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day, but the average Australian consumes more than double that. A 330ml bottle of Coke contains nine teaspoons of sugar.
And today, ABC Factcheck highlighted yet another example of industry lobbying leading to ill-informed bad policy with doubtful benefit and significant unintended ramifications.
On February 1st, at the insistence of the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians among others, the government made all codeine products prescription only.
Health Minister Greg Hunt claimed the move would save “up to 100 lives a year”, a claim the ABC shows doesn’t stack up.
But there are many aspects to this which the Minister, the doctors’ lobby groups, and the media reporting ignore.
Most importantly, over 70% of pharmacies were already participating in a voluntary program called MedsASSIST which was introduced in 2016 to provide a real time recording and reporting system on sales of over-the-counter codeine products where the customer’s identification (licence number for example) was recorded with each purchase on a site which linked all participating pharmacies.
Around 9 million transactions have been recorded by MedsASSIST, with a sharp reduction in codeine sales, and referrals of thousands of patients for further pain management. This system was closed down on February 1st.
A similar compulsory system called Project STOP exists to monitor sales of pseudoephedrine.
Doctor’s have no such link to each other so this new law allows problem users to doctor shop with no way for the doctor to know what prescriptions other doctors have issued. Increasing prescriptions without a real time recording and reporting system can only exacerbate the problem.
And whilst the doctors might be happily writing prescriptions for Panadeine and Nurofen Plus, they are no longer available as the companies who supplied them withdrew supply when the decision to make them prescription only was made. They, or other companies, may provide similar products in the future but for any existing products, all of the packaging would have to be changed to mark them as prescription only.
Basically, the only thing available at the moment is Panadeine Forte which has a much higher codeine content (30mg as opposed to 8mg in Panadeine) which is too strong for many people.
Data from the Bureau of Statistics showed almost 70 per cent of drug-related deaths in Australia in 2016 were a result of prescription drug abuse. According to the Penington Institute, between 2008 and 2014 Australia experienced an 87 per cent increase in prescription opioid deaths, with the increase in rural regional Australia a shocking 148 per cent.
If this policy was supposed to address opioid abuse, it is seriously flawed.
Then again, I cannot think of one piece of legislation resulting from industry lobbying that isn’t.
But hey, let’s give them a $65 billion tax cut so they can increase dividends to their shareholders, increase payment to their CEO, and so they can buy back shares and reduce their debt at the expense of either an increasing public debt or drastically reduced services to the community.
Because that will be good. The lobbyists tell us so.