How to deal with fossil fuel lobbying and its growing influence in Australian politics

Will climate action undermine Australia’s democracy? This question may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

A recent study describes a campaign by the automotive industry to integrate their (low) voluntary fuel efficiency standards into national standards. This campaign fits into a broader pattern of lobbying by the fossil fuel industry to prevent effective climate action and underscores the importance of democratic integrity in addressing the climate crisis and the urgent need for robust lobbying regulation.

The fossil fuel lobby and climate inaction

Professor Ross Garnaut from the University of Melbourne has observed that “(e)emissions-intensive industries have invested heavily in influencing climate change policy since the early days of discussion on these issues”.

We see the impact of these investments in several ways:

Read more: Worry if fossil fuel lobbyists support current environmental laws

Rise of the “Greenhouse Mafia”

Book by Marian Wilkinson The Carbon Club provides a compelling account of how a network of climate science skeptics, politicians and business leaders in Australia produced decades of inaction on climate change.

Under the Howard administration, climate policy was driven by fossil fuel lobbyists who likened themselves to organized crime through a self-appointed label – the greenhouse mafia.

The group has contributed to the outsized role played by the fossil fuel industry in guiding government policy. Perhaps most importantly, fossil fuel companies have played a crucial role in ousting two of Australia’s six prime ministers since 2007; Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

The term “policy capture” is described by the OECD as meaning that public decisions about policy action are consistently steered away from the public interest and towards a specific interest, leading to inequalities and democratic values, economic growth and trust in the government undermines. The use of the phrase in this context has some validity.

The lobbying risks of climate protection

Paradoxically, the risks associated with lobbying for fossil fuels increase with higher levels of climate action.

Effective climate change policies will mean increased regulation of fossil fuel industries.

Effective climate action will mean increased regulation of fossil fuel industries, such as B. Stricter emission standards for the largest greenhouse gas emitters under the ALP plan Powering Australia. Significant public funds are channeled into climate action under the plan.

As a result, fossil fuel industries and other sections of society will naturally seek to influence governments’ climate decisions. This is not in itself undemocratic – the fossil fuel industries play a legitimate role in influencing government policy.

However, what is undemocratic is their disproportionate influence and how it is often exercised behind closed doors.

Regulatory failure of the federal lobbying system

Lobbying regulation in Australia is particularly sparse. It currently takes the form of a public lobbyists register and code of conduct.

The secrecy and lack of integrity surrounding fossil fuel lobbying stem directly from the failings of state lobbying regulation. This lack of transparency also includes:

  • Lobbying coverage limited to commercial lobbyists, who make up only 20% of the lobbyist population, excluding other “repeat offenders” such as internal lobbyists
  • Dire disclosure requirements that only require the name and contact details of the lobbyist and the client they represent. There is a knowledge vacuum about when lobbyists contact government officials and on what issues.

The enforcement of violations is also a major concern. In 2018, the Commonwealth Auditor-General found that the Prime Minister’s and Cabinet department that oversaw the federal lobbyists register took no action against lobbyists, despite identifying at least 11 possible violations.

Read more: Politicians must bridge the gap between coal lobbies and energy companies

The way forward

Three key reforms will make federal lobbying regulation more effective while contributing to effective climate action.

First, the scope of the federal lobbying ordinance should extend to both commercial lobbyists and internal lobbyists. Following Operation Eclipse by the independent NSW Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the NSW government will introduce lobbying laws that will regulate these two classes of lobbyists (as is the case in Canada and the United States).

Second, there should be greater transparency in lobbying by requiring:

  • Lobbyists must disclose every lobbying contact (as in Queensland, Canada and Scotland)
  • Ministers, senior ministry advisers and senior public officials to disclose monthly who contacted them and why. Currently, Queensland publishes ministerial diaries while NSW will publish diaries of ministers and MPs
  • the establishment of an independent regulator or agent to monitor these matters on a regular basis and take action where necessary, as promised by the NSW Government.

Upholding democracy is essential in the climate crisis and for the functioning of government as a whole. Strict lobbying regulation is an essential measure to ensure everyone is protected.

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