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Listening to industry lobby groups results in poor policy every time

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.


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  1. New England Cocky

    A excellent article once again demonstrating for all those who are prepared to see that that RAbbott Morriscum Dutton Turdball NLP misgovernment has no idea about what it is talking about. But, as they say in the movies, never let the facts get in the way of some false propaganda … summer time solar power for running reverse cycle air conditioning units during the day for example.

  2. helvityni

    This is the article I have been waiting for, thank you Kaye Lee for writing it..

    My heart sinks when I see an obese person pushing a shopping trolley, mainly filled with sugary drinks and pre-cooked dinners, and not a vegetable or fruit to be seen..

    This does not seem to concern our politicians of any side or corner, they might wake-up finally when the cost of healthcare becomes unmanageable. Time to start a war on sugar…it can be won….or have we already forgotten the very successful anti smoking actions, plain packaging and creation of smoke-free zones…

  3. Kaye Lee


    Your concern reminds me that sometimes industry lobby groups can work for good – just not about their own industry…..

    You may be interested to read this advice from the AMA in January this year.

    In brief (kinda)….

    What Governments should do:

    A tax on sugar sweetened beverages should be introduced as a matter of priority.
    It is vital that fresh, minimally processed foods, such as fruit and vegetables, are affordable for all (including those on low or fixed incomes), even if it contradicts market demands.
    The Federal Government should continue food fortification programs that benefit the public at a population level, as well as population level monitoring that would identify new and emerging micronutrient deficiencies.
    Recognising the wealth of information on nutrition, it is vitally important that the relevant authorities regularly review and update dietary guidelines, and associated clinical guidelines.
    Governments must invest in programs that seek to improve nutrition literacy, including community-wide and more targeted programs with messages that are salient and practical.
    Governments must support continued research and investment into evidence-based policy responses to food insecurity in Australia. Financial support must extend to local community responses, such as food banks, community gardens and cooking programs.
    Governments must work with the food industry to improve the ability for people to distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars. This may be done with refinements of the HSR system.
    Governments must support Australian research into interventions that improve eating behaviours.
    Governments must continue to support programs that collect data (including blood and urine samples) to measure Australia’s current nutritional status and identify trends and ongoing needs.

  4. diannaart

    Kaye Lee

    We can hope Australia does its usual follow in USA footsteps.

    Although , over there, sugar taxes are decided by state by state. However, it is interesting to note how a sugar tax has impacted (or not ) in California:

    Berkeley, California, introduced a substantial tax on sugar-sweetened beverages on 1 March 2015…. Shopkeepers did not lose out because the average grocery bill remained the same. The authors of the study suggest it is possible that consumers are shifting away from sugary drinks to healthier ones – and without causing undue economic hardship because spending did not drop.
    In the first year, the tax was levied only in the chain supermarkets and chain petrol stations, so there is still scope for a bigger effect when independent and small shops also bring it in. The money raised is going to child health programmes…
    …The battle for sugar taxes has not yet been won in the USA, he said. “The industry is still fighting tooth and nail. We have reached a turning point, but the industry is still fighting. They are fighting desperately in Philadelphia because it is a low-income and very high-purchasing city. The implications are quite profound.”

  5. flohri1754

    Kaye Lee … great writing with such clarity. Thank you.

  6. cartoonmick

    Our Pollies don’t stand a chance with all these vultures.

  7. Matters Not


    … 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 …

    All true. But there’s more apparently. Yesterday in the Senate came this question from Kim Carr:

    Analysis by the prime minister’s former employer Goldman Sachs has found that up to 60% of the Turnbull government’s proposed $65bn tax cut for big business will go directly to foreign shareholders. Is this analysis correct? If not, why not?

    Such a large sum potentially going to foreign shareholders. Even a goodly sum flowing to (effective) tax residents of the Cayman Islands? Is this a conflict of interest? If not – then why not? Did he (Turnbull) excuse himself from Cabinet deliberations at the time? If not – then why not? And so on …

  8. guest

    Thank you, Kaye, for your precise summary of how the general public is being dudded by the lobbyists who have replaced experienced, expert people. In fact, experts are derided as if what the lay person thinks is the reality most likely.

    It is disappointing to see the tobacco industry still plying its poisonous trade, seeking markets in places where they are not pestered by regulations. Everywhere, there are ways and means of skimming money from gambling technology which requires no more than the repetitious pressing of a button – which leads to huge political power for the gambling business.

    So it goes.

    But there is also the macro scene where the world is being destroyed through pollution of various kinds, chemical, material, nuclear. And by population. There is a cry now for population reduction. Our water is being stolen, the ocean is filling with huge garbage patches, climate change is real and demonstrable, land clearance is rife, wild animals are disappearing from the face of the earth. Paul Ehrlich tells us the collapse if civilisation is imminent within decades.

    The population is crowding into cities. Sydney and Melbourne with populations of 8m each in decades. There are some 50+ million people seeking refuge. Arable land turns to dust and is blown on the wind. The cry from some is: Populate or perish.

    Meanwhile we seek another planet to wreck.

    Yet we carry on as if our little private world is all that matters. And the worst aspect of it is that so many of the politicians who should have the power to make a positive difference are too much entrapped in ancient ideology which achieves nothing of positive good. In fact, it leads backwards to ignorance. We see the Coalition having achieved nothing in 4 years. Now we have a Liberal government in SA which is just a junior Coalition which has not been in power for 16 years and looks like simply setting about the destruction of everything Labor.

    I made the mistake of reading a Bolt “essay” on climate change recently. The standard of argument was poor, full of debunked nonsense. Fortunately he seems to struggle to make much traction, yet the twice-boiled cabbage he calls journalism is presented in print and on the airwaves. It shows what pitiful understanding still finds a place in our media.

  9. Keith

    Profit is more important than anything else it seems. We seem to be going into a mini dark age where the best decisions are scuttled.
    On Face Book earlier I read about the NAB having record profits; yet, huge numbers of staff are being retrenched. It makes a nonsense of the LNP’s claim that tax cuts will lead to more employment.

    Myers is struggling, mismanagement may have been an issue. But, when numerous consumers are struggling to pay for services, mortgages or rent, and necessities; it is not surprising.

    Through greater stringent regulation against people on benefits, where benefits are lost for a significant period for missing interviews, more petty crime and homelessness can be expected.

  10. Andrew Smith

    Good description of Australia, however I wouldn’t assume the tactics to support policy development originated in Australia, possibly the US.

    It’s known by US journalists such as Jane Mayer etc. as ‘architecture’ using networks of (connected) think tanks &/or lobbyists, PR, media etc., to create an ‘assembly line’ to get the right policies, one example which influences politicians directly

  11. C Venner

    The Dental Lobby persuaded the Government/ ministers to artificially fluoridate our drinking water even though studies cited by The Dental Lobby, ADA, AMA, NHMRC, Governments and other promoters as evidence that fluoride is safe and effective at reducing dental decay have been proven to be seriously flawed, of such low quality that sound conclusions cannot be made or claims are made that cannot be substantiated by the raw data.(International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology).
    Even when Australian dentist and statistition Dr. Philip Sutton checked the data from the original fluoridation trials in the USA- over 50 years ago – he found 80 pages of errors and presented his published findings (Errors and Omissions in Experimental Trials) to the Victorian Gvmt who were about to start fluoridating public drinking water in Victoria- it was ignored and this monograph has been ignored ever since. Every attempt to discredit his findings have failed. The NSW Premier (at the time) ordered the MWS& DB to fluoridate Sydney water supply even though MWS&DB own chemists/water analysts visited the USA and their report advised the MWS&DB & Premier NOT to fluoridate Sydney Water supply. After 4 years of experiments on lab rats, a US toxicologist invited manufacturers who put fluoride in dental products and decision makers who put fluoride in public drinking water to a seminar and explained her experiments and findings – that fluoride is neurotoxic – they all walked away and did nothing and left fluoride in drinking water and dental products. Mountains of legitimate studies prove the claim fluoride reduces dental decay is founded on fraudulent and unsound science yet the government continues to spend tens of millions of dollars fluoridating our water. Water fluoridation is a total failure. If fluoride worked it would protect all teeth in fluoridated areas, most obvious in the elderly who have drunk fluoridated water for decades. The dental lobby continues to dictate to the government to push for all lAustralian towns with a population over 1000 to fluoridate their drinking water even though it is a failed policy. Following the lies, the deception, the grants, the money trail is not for the faint hearted.

  12. Terry2

    Industry lobby groups in the finance, banking and insurance sectors have successfully frustrated governments over the years in their mission to avoid regulation requiring to disclosure of hidden commissions, trailing commissions, spotters fees and associated lurks and perks paid to intermediaries.

    Once again we are seeing in the Banking Royal Commission the damage done to consumers resulting from the non-disclosure of these hidden payments and the complete lack of transparency which effectively denies consumers their right to informed consent.

    Perhaps things will change after this Royal Commission but don’t hold your breath.

  13. Michael Taylor

    The other day in the hospital emergency there was a young girl – accompanied by her mother – who wanted a pain killer for period pain. Only a few months ago she could have purchased some Panadeine from the chemist, but not now.

    Of course, she deserved to be attended to just as much as everyone else in emergency, but OMG, the place was in chaos. Doctors, nurses, all staff … were pushed to the limits.

  14. Florence nee Fedup

    What I don’t understand with most only paying 12-20% now, where is the $65 billion coming from. Especially when we are talking about a decade into the future. Why would the PM is able to say with no doubt there will be more jobs, wage rises? The question is when?

  15. Miriam English

    Take big money donations (bribery) out of politics and most of this will naturally fix itself. Banning politicians from taking jobs with companies related to legislation they affected while in government will ensure almost all the remaining problems will be fixed.

    There may remain some problems related to religion’s influence on politicians, but strict enforcement of the division between church and state will stop most of that, and banning deluded religious fundamentalists from holding office would solve any others.

    But first, and most importantly, we need to pressure our greedy politicians to block big money from affecting politics. They won’t do it on their own, even though it’s also in their interests to do so. We have to force them through public pressure. If we wait until the system is as poisoned as that in USA, it might be too late to save it.

    At the moment the hapless politicians are stuck running on a treadmill that keeps speeding up, as they compete with other parties to get enough funding to outdo them, and they have no way to slow it or to get off. We need to pull the plug. Only we can do it.

  16. Andreas Bimba

    The duopoly has been bought.

  17. guest

    Further to my comment 23/3/18.

    Senator Canavan (23/3/18) is telling us that we must extract the gas in the Northern Territory because there is enough there to last 200 years. Two hundred years is less than the time since the First Fleet arrived!

    And of course Canavan is very keen to dig up more coal in the Galilee Basin. For the jobs, of course, because he cannot think of any other job creation. And also for the money. Because if we do not sell coal to India, someone else will. And their coal would not be the quality of our coal.

    So what is the point of that? He says the burning of Indian coal would produce higher carbon emissions So better to burn our coal. And he quotes figures that overall in the world we will burn more coal in the first 40 years of this century than we did in the rest of history. But we must do it, apparently. Can he really speak of carbon emissions and then ignore them?

    Then we have Sheridan (24/3/18) urging us to populate or perish. He says: “If we we are a nation of 40 million (by mid-century) with a median age of 39 and a productive industry capacity we will be able to cope with whatever challenges we face infinitely better than if we are a chronically indebted, enfeebled nation of 28 million, with a median age of 57, and no industry.”

    The word “infinitely” is very interesting. It seems that Sheridan, like so many of the neo-liberal conservatives, believes that infinite growth in population and consumption, with huge security expenditure, huge industrial production, huge cities with massive infrastructure….along with Canavan’s huge consumption of coal with its accompanying carbon emissions….will be be good for the planet.

    They complain about the cost of energy at present, but what is the cost of cooking the planet?

  18. Miriam English

    It is true that much of the coal currently being mined in Australia is some of the lowest ash content in the world, but the stuff in the Galilee Basin is high ash coal. It isn’t good quality at all. Besides, India is closing the door to imports soon. They can mine all the coal they need themselves, and they have begun moving towards solar and wind at a speed our brain-wasted government can’t comprehend.

    If we continue down this track that Canavan and the rest of the technophobic morons in our government intend then we’ll be stranded with dirty great holes in the ground, all this f#cking coal nobody in the world wants, and a crippled renewables industry, scorned by the rest of the world as a country of stupid, uneducated, racist whites, trying to re-live the 1950s.

    This conservative government, and to a lesser extent, Labor, have completely lost sight of what it means to govern the country. They think it’s all about getting perks, feathering their own nests, winning idiotic schoolboy “games”, one-upping each other, and selling us out to their obscenely wealthy mates. They have no interest at all in Australia. I’d go so far as to say they are actually traitors. They are taking our country to ruin and they frankly don’t care.

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