Today’s post a fairly parochial, so please forgive me.
In recent times Australian news has been filled with stories about politicians and public servants getting “freebies”. Some of these may be from lobbyists. Some may be from commercial interests. The general consensus seems to be “It’s not fair that they get such freebies.” Such freebies include overseas trips, dinners, attendance at sporting events and so on. I wish to add my two cents’ worth.
Before I do so I want to provide examples from my very own experience. I apologise that I will not use actual organisational names or reveal actual identities in doing so. Basically I don’t want to get myself in trouble. But everything I write is true and I saw it with my own two eyes.
- At the beginning of the 1990s I was the Special Events Coordinator for a major Australian University. Graduate and Community Relations (my office) had the mission of engaging graduates and business with the purpose of increasing donations to that University. I’m not talking about a few measly dollars either. Start thinking multi-millions. Engaging people to donate large sums typically required building relationships with them. Hence special events – instances where members of the University could interact with the rich and powerful. To make these events worthwhile for the rich and powerful, it was always good to trot out high profile “friends of the University”. These were usually graduates who have made good: sports champions, performers, politicians and so on. I would offer them (and sometimes their families) a free ticket to the events I was running and in return these people just had to show up and interact. And it worked a treat!
- In the early 2000’s I undertook a six week IT contract with a major bank. The work often had me sitting in people’s offices working on their PCs. One time I was in the office of a bank sales executive. The bloke was on the phone, discussing business with a colleague. I absent-mindedly listened in as I worked. One of his clients had given him the use of a box at a major sporting event. He intended to use the box to impress a different client. However he had recently been petitioned to donate a sizeable amount of money on behalf of the bank to a charity. He knew that the charity had a high profile spokesperson. So he intended to agree to the donation on the condition that the spokesperson attended the sporting event (even if only briefly) so as to impress this other client.
In both of these examples the high profile person (politician or whatever) got a freebie, be it a meal or time at a sporting event. In the first example, the University won because it promoted the university and increased donations. In the second example, the charity got a good donation from the bank and the bank got to impress a client by letting them rub shoulders with someone important. Everyone wins.
The problem with news reports is that the “everyone wins” outcome is not particularly news worthy. However if they write stories about politicians and public servants getting something for nothing, then that sells newspapers (or the modern online equivalent). And let’s face it, public opinion is about perceptions.
I’m now going to tell a story with actual names.
In the mid-1990s I worked for the NSW TAFE Commission. The Head Office (or Corporate Services) building was situated outside of the Sydney’s central business district in a tall, modern white building at St Leonards. The problem was that whenever anyone had an issue with TAFE the newspapers would write stories about the public sector education mandarins in their expensive ivory tower at St Leonards. You see, St Leonards was perceived as a wealthy area and the building in question was beautiful, so it was considered luxury accommodation. In about 1996 this perception became too much for the powers that be. TAFE HQ was ordered to move to an older, more cramped building in Sydney’s CBD. The new building had numerous issues, but never again were TAFE executives accused of wasting public money in luxury accommodation. The only problem was that no one bothered to check the facts. The contract for the St Leonards building was cheaper than the one in the CBD. The cost of moving was huge. So essentially we paid more tax-payers’ money for worse accommodation. And that is my point: it’s about perception and not reality.
Last night I mentioned all these things to a family member. There response was simply “Politicians and public servants should not get anything for free when we are paying their salaries.” I tried to argue the bigger picture and the complex threads that do benefit the community. It made no difference. She was adamant. And let’s face it, people rarely change long held beliefs. But I think it comes down to petty jealousy because it is seen as people who are already getting a lot getting even more. And it is. But we cannot let that blinker us to the broader good.
OK – at this point you are probably thinking I am naïve. At least one of you is thinking “Sure. But if we let commercial interests and lobby groups give such gifts to politicians and public servants then we are opening the system to corruption.” In some cases yes. And the system needs to be vigilant to prevent that from eventuating. But it should do this on a case by case approach, trying to understand exactly what is happening and what the outcomes are. Trial by media serves no one else other than the news services.
But wait, there is more. This bit comes from research and not from personal experience.
What do you know about lobby groups? Well, there is an awful lot of them and they cover all different sides of politics and viewpoints. I have randomly listed six below:
- The Property Council of Australia
- Pathology Australia
- The Australian Conservation Foundation
- The Australian Council of Trade Unions
- The Business Council of Australia
- Minerals Australia
And I asked the question “What do they do and why would politicians care about them?’
Well, obviously they campaign for changes to government policy and designs in a way that favours the beliefs/interests of their membership. But from a politician’s perspective, lobby groups provide a readily accessible stakeholder voice to engage when change is being considered. What’s more, this voice has specialist knowledge in those fields. Sure, that voice also has it’s own agenda, but politicians should understand that and take it into account. Lobby groups also provide an idea of the resistance that proposed changes may meet. Alternatively, a lobby group could become the champion of government change is considered worthwhile. So lobby groups are useful to democracy.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say. Thanks for reading