Cash For Contacts: Larissa Waters Calls For End To Secret Meetings, Sweetheart Political Deals

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When Ministers retire from politics straight into the arms of Big Corporate and Big Mining, our democracy is under threat. Greens Senator Larissa Waters argues for tighter restrictions.

Australians are fed up with establishment politics and it’s no surprise. Despite a massive mining boom, real wages are stagnant, underemployment and insecure work are rife and affordable housing is a thing of the past for many.

Global warming is making Australia a more dangerous place to live with ever more extreme weather, bushfires and droughts, and it threatens to fuel even more dangerous global instability and conflict in the future.

At the same time, our leaders seem incapable of even talking seriously about these problems, let alone tackling them. In fact, our Prime Minister is bent on handing out $50 billion in tax cuts to big corporates, cutting the already inadequate incomes of the poorest Australians, and handing out billions in subsidies for fossil fuels rather than cutting pollution.

Australians are not stupid. They know that our leaders have stopped listening to them. Our politics has been hijacked by big corporates and big polluters. To reclaim our democracy from these vested interests a crucial first step is to remove the influence of big money from our politics. To do that, we have to ban dirty political donations and jam shut the revolving door between big parties, big business and big polluters.

The most recent example of this revolving door is Ian Macfarlane, who was federal Resources Minister for nine years under John Howard and Tony Abbott. Earlier this year, Tony Abbott called on the mining industry to demonstrate their “gratitude” to Macfarlane in his retirement after he scrapped the mining tax.

Former Liberal Minister, Ian Macfarlane. (IMAGE: Engineers Australia, Flickr)
Former Liberal Minister, Ian Macfarlane. (IMAGE: Engineers Australia, Flickr)

Just five months after leaving Parliament and just over a year after leaving the Cabinet, Macfarlane walked into a job as boss of the mining lobby in Queensland on a reported pay packet of $500,000 per year on top of his Parliamentary pension.

Not long afterwards, Macfarlane scored a spot on the board of oil giant Woodside Petroleum, who specifically cited his political experience as the reason for appointing him.

Macfarlane joins a very, very long list of Labor, Liberal and National ministers who have gone on to lobby for big corporates and big polluters.

Former Liberal Trade Minister Andrew Robb now works for Chinese company Landbridge, Labor resources minister Martin Ferguson became chairman of the gas lobby APPEA’s Advisory Board, Labor climate change minister Greg Combet consulted for AGL Energy and fracking company Santos, and former Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Mark Vaile became a director and then chairman of Whitehaven coal.

These massive companies have been ripping off Australians for years. They avoid paying tax, threaten our groundwater and produce dangerous climate pollution. Staggeringly, they also get massive government handouts.

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The Queensland government spent $9.5 billion over six years propping up coal and the federal government will spend $24 billion over four years on fossil fuel subsidies. Just imagine if we spent these astronomical sums building affordable housing, schools, hospitals or clean energy!

Along with dirty donations from big polluters, the revolving door keeps this whole broken system running. It allows the political class within our two big parties to see the interests of multinational mining companies as the same as the national interest.

New research about to be released from the Greens’ Democracy for Sale project shows the resources sector has donated $50,824,732 since 1998. That’s just money that has been declared by parties, but other recent research on “dark money” shows that 85% of privately raised funds are not declared by political parties.

Fixing donations is simple, even if it’s politically nearly impossible. The Greens have legislation before the Senate to ban donations from fossil fuel companies, as well as property developers and the tobacco, liquor and gambling industries in the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Donations Reform) Bill 2014.

It’s much harder to stop the revolving door, but this week in the Senate we took a very important first step to doing just that.

A Greens motion supported by the Senate established a rolling schedule of mandatory disclosures which would force the government to publish a list of every meeting between a minister or senior public official and a former Minister who is still within the 18 month “cooling off” period.

Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull.
Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull.

This cooling off period is enshrined in the Statement of Ministerial Standards endorsed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Former Ministers are meant to be banned from lobbying, advocating or having business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister in their last 18 months in office.

The catch is that the Standards aren’t binding, and the PM has been turning a blind eye to apparent breaches. When the Greens asked in Senate Estimates for evidence that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet monitored compliance with the rules, we got none. Malcolm Turnbull apparently ticked off on Ian Macfarlane’s appointment without even taking advice from his own Department.

Despite that, Macfarlane freely admits he will use his political contacts in both his new positions.

“I’m open to using all the connections I have,” he said. “In my phone, I have 4,370-something contacts, and that’s been built over a lifetime in agri-politics and politics.”

The need to jam shut the revolving door applies just as much to big banks and property developers as it does to big polluters and mining companies.

There is, however, an added urgency. We have very little time to cut pollution if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming. Unless we rescue our democracy from the clutches of these vested interests the consequences for our planet and all of our common future looks dangerous indeed.

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Larissa Waters

Senator Larissa Waters is the Co-Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, and spokesperson on mining, resources and climate change.

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