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PHRP Awards: how the lobbying industry can be bad for our health

The steady flow of politicians and government staffers switching sides to lobby for powerful food, alcohol and gambling companies poses a serious threat to public health, according to the authors of what has just been named Best Paper in the Sax Institute’s annual Public Health Research & Practice Excellence Awards.

The study, published in the journal in October 2019, found that around a third of people currently on the Australian Government Register of Lobbyists had formerly been a government representative. The award-winning Deakin University authors, led by Narelle Robertson, reported on several examples of people working at senior levels of government going on to work directly for alcohol, food or gambling industries, often in areas directly related to their previous government role.

This so-called ‘revolving door’ between government and the food, alcohol and gambling industries favours industry interests by enhancing insider knowledge and providing access to policy makers through personal ties.

In their paper, the authors pointed to continued delays in implementing alcohol warning labels and the lack of gambling reform despite strong public support as two areas where industry influence has undermined evidence-based public health policy.

“We urgently need a rethink on how we regulate this, and on how long former government officials should have to wait before moving on to lobbying roles,” said senior author Professor Peter Miller of the School of Psychology at Deakin University.

The study authors called for tighter and more robustly enforced regulations around “cooling-off periods” between government employment and lobbying roles. They noted that although rules prevent federal ministers and parliamentary secretaries from lobbying in related areas for 18 months, these rules are poorly enforced. Other countries, they added, have considerably longer cooling-off periods, with both the United States and Canada adopting a five-year ban on administration officials.

The authors also called for bans on information-sharing by former government officials and a federal anti-corruption body to provide oversight and transparency.

Publication of the paper sparked interest in policy making circles and generated significant media coverage, with interviews and articles in the Guardian, The Australian, Fairfax newspapers and ABC programs.

Professor Miller said the research work he and his colleagues had conducted was beginning to bear fruit and impact on the national debate around lobbying. He said a recent parliamentary inquiry into political donations was in part driven by some of his work, particularly in how the alcohol and gambling industries have been so strategic about influencing policy at federal and state levels.

“I’m optimistic that our research is having an effect and that we can turn things around. I think the younger generation in particular wants to see more transparency in what happens in government, and I think we’ll see a renaissance of political ethics.”

The Sax Institute has established the Public Health Research & Practice Excellence Awards to celebrate the high calibre of articles published in the Institute’s peer-reviewed journal. We promote excellence in public health research, practice and policy, and recognise the inspirational work taking place in Australia and internationally.

More information about the Awards and winning papers here.