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Tag Archives: lobby groups

Dark Money funding Weaponised Unreality

Billionaires fund bodies with excellent PR strategies to ensure they achieve their goals. Amongst the strategies, “astroturf” organisations use good-sounding names to confuse us in a chaotic information moment. We need help to know which organisations are reliable and which aim to deceive and distort the debate.

The weaponised unreality – or alternative reality – in which the right finds itself immersed has not developed by chance. It is the project of decades of constant work, and billions of dollars. Social media sprays it around the globe, now out of the control of the people who funded and designed the strategies.

The concept of “marketing doubt” was honed by the tobacco lobby from the late 1960s, deferring action on the science that had proved smoking was a deadly risk. Muddying the debate was enough to prevent legislators setting restrictions and courts imposing damages. It is estimated that, in America alone, 16 million people died from tobacco use over that period.

The fossil fuel sector initially pursued research into diversifying energy sources once the threat from excess carbon in the atmosphere became reasonably clear in the late 70s. In the 80s, when the sector decided this was too costly, they adopted the tobacco sector’s propaganda plan. Many of the same people transferred and refined the skills to delay action, forging what is now the climate emergency.

Now institutions like Fox News and Sky, together with their trashier and more radical imitators, fan up outrage about M&M spokescandies or an attack on apparently-beloved gas cooktops. Anyone arguing anything other than the current radicalised right orthodoxy is a “woke” and existential threat. More dangerously, any behaviour that doesn’t reconcile with patriarchal “traditional” sexuality is framed not merely as woke but as an existential threat to the nation.

In between effectively banning abortion and making it possible to take trans youth from supportive families, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has declared war on the Disney corporation threatening to build a prison on its doorstep to punish it for the mildest of resistance to his persecution of LGBTQI+ people.

Realist donors and strategists in America have begun to baulk at the culture war battles* that are alienating the majority of voters – not to mention impinging on the free market. Over decades they fought to have tax and regulations cut, knowing it would harm the mass of voters. Distractions were devised to immerse voters’ identities in cultural campaigns in order to wield enough votes to pursue the goals. For instance, conservatives learnt to believe utterly in their God-given duty to burn fossil fuels.

Now the clear-eyed see the chaos that is the result.

The disinformation strategies began to develop in force with Anthony Fisher’s “think” tanks that drove the harsh neoliberal ideologies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. These propagandist bodies devised plans to spread the plutocrats’ wish-list as though it was an orthodox and widespread academic argument. The most direct offshoot of his project is now the Atlas Network with over 500 interlinked bodies worldwide, including the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

The billionaire-enabled “think” tanks funded chairs and departments in universities that would give credibility to their ideology. They provided a gush of money to young “conservatives” who would pursue the goal of turning the law and politics towards free market goals, with schools and associations designed to mentor their progress in the professions. Their conservative social ideas became entangled in this ultra free market political economy.

The “think” tanks’ lobbyists directly targeted politicians. Conferences and speaking tours brought the acolytes together. The tanks and donors funded journals and “news” organisations. They organised the flooding of newspapers and journals with columns to have the message emerge from many voices.

One strategy that has been particularly powerful in confusing the media and politicians is the founding of a metastasising cohort of front organisations. These spread the messages that serve the donors’ interests, making it sound like there is a broad call for their policies.

The groups have different models. Some are offshoots of the original “think” tanks. Others are directed at the average punter, faking “grass roots” support for policies ultimately aimed to benefit the wealthy: thus the name “astroturfing” – fake grass roots. And they have, to borrow satirist’s Bird and Fortune’s 2008 financial sector joke, “good names.”

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) sounds like a “good” institution at first blush. In fact, it is a source of virulent anti-immigrant propaganda founded by eugenicist John Tanton. One would sound reasonable quoting The National Policy Institute if the audience was not aware it was a white supremacist organisation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sounds reputable. Instead it is a factory churning out boilerplate oppressive laws for state Congresses’ radical right Republicans to table. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the real deal. The fossil fuel lobby created the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) to confuse audiences encountering their disinformation.

Other bodies have transformed in recent years. The Claremont Institute was a standard very conservative body funding research. In the last few years it has become a home of white supremacist talking points, with one of its senior members devising Trump’s election stealing playbook.

This disinformation is being promoted in an age suffering from a depleted news media. Its rushed and often inexperienced reporters cannot tell the difference between, say, Jewish peak bodies such as the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and an aspirant with a name designed to mimic their status. The Australian Jewish Association, which sounds reputable, is rather described as a “far-right, unrepresentative group” which has limited standing. It is a private advocacy group “on the margins” and should be noted as such by any journalist quoting it. Instead both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian quoted [paywalled] it as if it was a peak body.

Also copying the “think” tanks’ strategies, a number of groups quoted on the fabricated “moral” panic about trans people’s existence are collections of ideologues who have adopted an impressive name – or several. The American College of Pediatricians is a group devised to disseminate anti-trans messaging. The American Academy of Pediatrics is in fact that largest body actually representing American pediatricians. The good-sounding name of the former leads news organisations – and politicians – to quote them without understanding the skewed and unscientific nature of the group’s messaging. Gensect and the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (SEGM) are two more of a collection of ideologically-driven organisations that overlap with the same four activist members.

The agenda of these bodies and operatives is to create disinformation, easy in a world of fostered “radical ignorance.” It is hard to detect the truth when agents of chaos are “flooding the zone with shit.”

It should be basic practice that every journalist has a list of credible and discredited organisations by their workstation to aid them in discerning which groups have good names and which only “good names.”

Wikipedia and Sourcewatch can enlighten on many of the ideologues disguising their radical agenda as centrist and empirical organisations, but not all.

We must take every assertion by good-sounding representatives of good-sounding bodies with a grain of salt. Even Australia’s (depleted) best news organisations can’t tell the difference between masters of disinformation and real peak bodies. This is just how the money likes it.

 

*Almost certainly only the trivial ones. There may also be some pushback against the Religious Right Republican Party’s war on abortion, but Trump has made an attack on trans people central to his next campaign. There is little resistance on the Right to the attacks on LGBTQI+ people.

 

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Sack the marching girls

Tony Abbott has defended the canvassing of political donations from big business as a “time honoured” practice which prevents taxpayers from being forced to subsidise election campaigns.

Why is the only alternative taxpayers having to fund parties? Must we go down the US road of spending millions to buy public office? How about the political parties start recognising that millions spent on buying themselves a job might just be a waste of money. Tell us your policies then let us decide. Do we really need the brass bands and marching girls and letter boxes full of junk mail?

Christopher Pyne wants to ban donations from corporate Australia, lobby groups and unions, and limit it to individuals. Right. So you want to ban any collective voice the people may have and just let Gina, Rupert, Twiggy and Nathan decide who wins?

We own a national broadcaster. Why can’t we give political parties time on the ABC to plead their case during the election?

In the UK, paid political advertising is banned and this extends to lobby groups. When it comes to election time, they are all given free airtime.

“Political adverts are – and have always been – banned on British TV and radio. That ban has wide support and has helped sustain the balance of views which is at the heart of British broadcasting – and ensures the political views broadcast into our homes are not determined by those with the deepest pockets.”

I am not sure how you control Rupert from giving his party of choice free advertising under the guise of “opinion”. We can only hope that the days of being able to hoodwink people are numbered with the fact check ability afforded us by the internet.

In Canada they have a $1200 limit on donations, whether they be from an organisation or an individual, and they limit campaign spending to a sensibly low amount.

Our democracy is being undermined by allowing those who have the most money to have the most influence. If I felt they were offering altruistic advice then I might appreciate their input and experience. Considering their sole motivation is to maximise their profit by minimising regulations and their taxation contribution, I would say that they should be given no access to our political decision-making, paid for or otherwise.

 

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Are you being served?

MOR-health-website-wide-620x349

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?