It was Thomas Jefferson who said: ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’. Given what we see happening elsewhere and in Australia these days it might be better rephrased as: ‘The price of real democracy is eternal vigilance’. And vigilance seems to be something that Australian democracy appears to be urgently in need of!
A recent article from one of my favourite columnists Ross Gittins, one I still consider of value in today’s Australian mainstream media, made the argument that politics is increasingly being run in the interests of big business (‘The Four Business Gangs that run the US’, SMH, Dec. 31 2012).
The book that Ross bases his article upon; ‘The Price of Civilisation’, by Jeffrey Sachs, suggests that (in the U.S. at least) political power and influence are in the hands of four key corporate industrial sectors. I’d consider them cartels in the truest sense of the word. The cartels in the U.S. are: the Military/industrial complex, primarily concerned with militarisation; the Wall Street/Washington complex, primarily concerned with financial control; the Big Oil/military/transport complex, primarily concerned with maintaining carbon based supply and energy utilisation with requisite military expeditions and; fourthly, the Healthcare industry, primarily concerned with protecting the cost structures and interests of big medicine and the pharmaceutical industries.
Gittins closes his article with the comment that; ‘Fortunately, things aren’t nearly so bad in Australia. But it will require vigilance to stop them sliding further in that direction’. I tend to partly agree with Ross. Things aren’t ‘NEARLY’ so bad! But bad enough to consider that Australian democracy is becoming more subject to similar forces that have effectively traduced U.S. democracy into what you could now call a Corpocracy. Or even a Lobbocracy. But a Democracy? Sadly, not any more.
Why might there be cause for concern?
Consider who/what in Australia effectively controls the reins of political power and influence in Australia. We don’t have a Military/industrial complex, nor a parallel to the Wall Street/Washington complex or that of the Big oil/military/transport complex, or big Healthcare. And it appears that there isn’t the relationships between industry, our financial sector, and transport to form a really powerful cartel. Perhaps it’s because most of our industries are smallish compared to those in the U.S. and without substantial politico/economic clout, or perhaps they are yet to form powerful cross-alliances. Perhaps that is one of the benefits of only having around 23 million people on the continent. There are disbenefits of being small as well but that’s another debate.
So which broad groups gain the most from influencing political decisions or, conversely, non-decisions in Australia? I’d suggest that they are:
The Union Collective: Although holding sway over only a small proportion of the approximately 10.8 million Australian workers (circa 17% or about 1.8 million), it has significant control over the Labor party due to its long relationship, a gerrymandered vote and powerful factional groups. These power groups (often Right Wing) have considerable say in Labor policy setting. Effectively everyday Labor followers have little say in branch affairs, in setting policy and in deciding who will represent them. They are effectively marginalised. The union voting imbalance and factional manipulation creates a party that is highly resistant to change, despite the need for it being recognised and propounded by experienced and knowledgeable members of the party. But change it must if it is to maintain its support base. However bear in mind this is probably the only group extant which has interests in the well-being of the nation’s workers so it’s a pretty lopsided state of affairs in the worker v industry equity stakes.
The Motor Industry: Has a knack of gaining regular subsidisation usually based around threats that one, or all, of the three players will shut down their business/es and go elsewhere. The noises are made and ‘voila’ out comes the large taxpayer subsidy or some ‘you beaut’ research funding grant. In a nation of 23 million people, one wonders, that if it were not for subsidisation, whether an automotive industry would exist at all. One manufacturer perhaps, but three? Surely not.
The Transport Industry: The trucks, increasingly larger and larger, continue to roll along highways continuously repaired and upgraded for heavy vehicle traffic. If you think this is being done for Joe Public, then think again! More and more money is poured into the highway network whilst the railway system languishes as a poor second cousin to high infrastructure costs and massive carbon fuel consumption. The embarrassment of the Melbourne to Sydney main rail line being restricted in places to 20 to 30 kph because of poor track maintenance has faded quietly into the background. It’s illustrative however of how rail has been superseded by an increasingly expensive (in all aspects) road transport system.
The Religious Discontinuity: Despite often being poles apart in their belief systems and dogma, the religious discontinuity can be quite contiguous when it comes to perceived threats to their beliefs and how that affects their relationships with ‘others’. The most recent demonstration of this contiguousness relates to the current Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill before the Australian Federal Parliament. The following from the Sydney Morning Herald, January 16 confirms that the religious discontinuity is capable of wielding a considerable amount of political power and influence: “Prime Minister Julia Gillard has assured religious groups they will have the ”freedom” under a new rights bill to discriminate against homosexuals and others they deem sinners, according to the head of the Australian Christian Lobby. And I thought it was an ‘anti’ discrimination bill! Silly me!
The Alcohol Industry: Despite clear evidence that alcohol use/abuse is now the third biggest contributor to the global burden of disease, headed only by high blood pressure and smoking, the industry seeks to maintain soft, minimum effect options. It continues to propound the mantras of ‘responsible drinking’, ‘targeting problem drinkers’ and adopting voluntary ‘child protection’ advertising codes rather than increasing price, restricting availability and banning advertising which have been shown elsewhere to be the most effective policies. Sounds a bit like the gaming industry doesn’t it? As these two industries are usually closely aligned via clubs, hotels, casinos then a common strategy is not surprising.
The Gaming Industry: I was going to make it the ‘Alcohol and Gaming Industry’ but they really do deserve separate, though interlinked cabals of their own. The gaming industry has clearly demonstrated its political power through its media campaign which effectively reduced the Labor government’s attempts to restrict the amount one could gamble to a policy of farcicality. Mind you had changes to gambling laws not been forced on a ‘minority’ government they probably would have avoided this little battle like the plague. The NSW government’s acceptance of a casino proposal, without due process, from Jamie Packer (without doubt the gambling king of Australia) is also illustrative of the power residing in this industry. Alcohol and Gaming in cahoots – frightening to any government?
The Mining Industry: Unequivocally the most powerful player in the business of political business. Succinctly stated in the SBS programme ‘Dirty Business’ by Robert Macklin, author of ‘The Big Fella: BHP’: ‘There is no doubt that the mining industry is more powerful than the government!’ ‘Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia’ on SBS 1 definitely recommended viewing. 10 out of 10 from me!
Collectively residing in this cabal are the mineral miners, as well as the carbon energy miners with about 83% of the whole industry foreign owned. Given that we are still using carbon based energy to a large extent as well as flogging coal and gas to anyone who’ll buy it, and challenged by a small, poorly supported, struggling to survive alternative energy industry, is suggestive of an industry that has considerable political clout. Loudly supported by the Anthropogenic Global Warming deniers the industry is beset with alternative energy uncertainty – perfect for those with vested interests in the continuation of a carbon based energy industry. It is actually surprising that we have a Carbon Levy.
The mineral miners are reputed to have played roles in: aspects of Billy Hughes party jumping in the early part of the 20th century; Menzies continued sale of minerals to the Japanese while being fully cognisant of the rise of militarism; the first steps in a multicultural Australia when Menzies and BHP brought 1 million migrants to Australia; the fall of the Whitlam government following their inept attempt to borrow Arab money to minimise foreign ownership of resources; and, probably their most blatant exercise of power. This was their expenditure of some $22 million advertising revenue against Kevin Rudd’s proposed mining tax which ultimately resulted in Rudd’s poor electoral showing and being dumped as Prime Minister by Labor. In effect this was the toppling of an elected Prime Minister by the industry and resulted in a considerably weaker tax regime on Australian resources. It’s estimated that the whole mining industry will save $60 billion over ten years as a result of their intervention in government law making. Given that the industry is about 83% foreign owned, perhaps we should consider this as government policy setting by foreign corporations?
Democracy (according to Wikipedia) is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy allows eligible citizens to participate equally—either directly or through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination. Taking that definition at face value you have to ask if it reflects the democratic process in Australia?
There’s recent clear evidence that the Union Collective, the Motor Industry, the Religious Discontinuity, the Alcohol Industry, the Gaming Industry, and the Mining Industry in particular have significantly influenced the making and implementation of government policy. And you have to ask: ‘Are we as eligible citizens participating equally in the proposal, development and creation of laws or has that democratic right been subsumed by powerful cabals which through their financial power and political influence now control the legislative process to serve their own purposes? Are our elected representatives failing us? And that’s food for thought!