the scourge of state capture

We are increasingly aware our politics have been captured by lobbyists and industries, so what can we do about it?

First published at the Monthly

Just like in the Leonard Cohen song “Everybody Knows”, it is no secret to anyone that the dice of Australian politics are loaded. Nevertheless, right after the 2019 federal election the Australian National University’s Australian Election Study underscored the numbers. Fifty-six per cent of people surveyed believe that the government is run for “a few big interests”. Only 12 per cent agreed with the statement that government is run for “all the people”. “Satisfaction with democracy is currently at its lowest level since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s, following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as prime minister,” wrote the authors of the survey.

People get it. Everybody knows.

Pluck five things at random out of the newsfeed’s churn and see if we can find a common thread. One: in the early months of the pandemic, the federal government established the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board to provide guidance on our economic recovery. Instead of appointing economists, public health experts or employment advocates, it stacked the commission with mining executives and gas industry people. They recommended public funding for gas pipelines and more gas fracking.

Two: in February 2020, a Brown University study in the United States estimated that approximately “25 per cent of all climate-related tweets were generated by bots on an average day during the period they studied. Most of these were supportive of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the climate agreement and/or were spreading misinformation about climate science.” Three: the Australian War Memorial, for decades a place of sombre remembrance, is being transformed into a promotional venue for arms exporters. Four: since the 1990s, more than a quarter of the major-party MPs who served in executive government were subsequently employed by industry associations, lobbying firms or big business in their political afterlife. Five: if you have $220,000 dollars, you can take out platinum membership in the exclusive “policy forums” set up by the two major parties and make your demands over snacks and nice wine. No meeting minutes, no records kept of attendees or agreements made, and no need to declare the money as a political donation since it’s just a “subscription fee”.

None of these things really qualifies as “corruption”. No matter how seedy they sound, no laws are being broken. None of these things is easily fixed by changing the government at election time either, as the underlying problem seems to outlast electoral cycles no matter who sits in the prime minister’s office.

There’s a name for this perilous place along the slide between corruption and oligarchy: development scholars call it “state capture”. According to the World Bank, “state capture is the exercise of power by private actors – through control over resources, threat of violence, or other forms of influence – to shape policies or implementation in service of their narrow interest”. State capture is the common thread that unites these random examples, joining the dots into something systematic and legible.

The phenomenon has been tracked from post-Soviet republics in Eastern Europe to postcolonial societies in Africa and Latin America, and to the astonishing lurches towards oligarchy in the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s time to drop the volume on the political theatre and start paying real attention to the people behind the scenes, the ones who cast the characters and write the scripts. It’s time to name names.

This month, the independent advocacy organisation Australian Democracy Network will publish new research on how state capture operates in Australia, and what to do about it. Rather than isolating a specific element such as donations or disinformation, the authors have taken a systems view, examining the phenomenon through six different lenses: financial manipulation of the political process, the role of specialised lobbyists, the revolving door between industry and government, the repurposing of public institutions, the process by which research and policy work is injected into public debate, and the role of public-influence campaigns on traditional media platforms and social media. The research looks closely at fossil-fuel industries – coal, oil and gas – and the weapons companies benefiting from the government push for an expanded military capacity.

State capture is so dangerous because society’s rule-making machinery is the prize, including the ability to define what constitutes corrupt or illicit behaviour in the first place. One of its side effects is public disorientation from being swamped in a sea of disinformation. In her recent essay for The Monthly, “Culture capture”, social researcher Rebecca Huntley described some of the symptoms in detail: most Australians have a wildly inaccurate picture of how many people fossil-fuel industries employ, the amount of tax they pay and the violence of the warming future they’re driving us into. It’s not that the electorate are stupid or gullible. These misconceptions are the intended consequence of deception campaigns running in concert with the invisible lobbying networks, and the cash transfers and “membership fees” that lubricate the whole machine.

State capture by corporate interests also means that Australian policymaking doesn’t work the way it’s meant to, and neither do elections. It means that even with a change of government, the capture infrastructure is likely to remain firmly in place. Whoever forms government, the fossil-fuel and arms industries will still have the numbers.

The whole set-up is designed to evoke a sense of helplessness and despair; to make us channel Leonard Cohen lyrics and vote for loaded dice and lesser evils, if we bother to vote at all. But with the world on fire that’s simply not an option any longer, and so the Australian Democracy Network also showcases a set of recommendations, called the Framework for a Fair Democracy, designed to give the public a fighting chance. It includes a robust set of proposals for campaign finance reform, radical transparency for lobbyists, enforceable codes of conduct for politicians and a strong national anti-corruption body. These proposals have been developed and endorsed by organisations including the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Transparency International, and a huge variety of environmental and social justice groups. Instead of providing piecemeal or incremental solutions, the framework is ambitious enough to help tackle state capture head-on. The policy work has been done.

Of course, there’s a catch: adjunct professor Colleen Helen Lewis put to a Senate committee in 2018 that “reform of political donations is a policy with a sting. The sting in part is that it is going to affect the only people who have the power to change the system. It is going to affect their vested interests to some degree.” And so the most interesting thing coming into election season is the evident mood for change: not just a change of government but a growing mood for deeper change. The surge in interest – and donations – to the independent Voices campaigns is one sign that people, collectively, are ready to shrug off the despair and aim high. The reforms in the Framework dovetail with longstanding proposals by the Greens and other independents. The upcoming election is a chance to substantially swell their ranks.

Ultimately, state capture isn’t going to be resolved by politicians. As with every other campaign for justice or peace throughout history, it won’t be led from the centre but from the margins: by ordinary people working in common cause to unclench the grip of powerful interests over institutions that are there to serve the public.

The fight’s been fixed for way too long. Call out state capture when you see it and name names – everybody knows there’s strength in numbers.