My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 13 August 2019

by ray goodlass

Alcohol industry undermines reform plans

Alcohol industry lobbying has undermined Australia’s new key plan to tackle alcohol-related harm, a new report by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) suggests.

The federal government has spent years developing a national alcohol strategy to address the harm of excessive alcohol consumption, which remains one of the major contributors to our dysfunctional society, illness and death.

Experts, health campaigners and the World Health Organisation have consistently urged governments to exclude the alcohol industry from any role in developing such policies.

But, after releasing an initial draft for public consultation in 2017, the government promptly approached the alcohol industry for feedback.

And so it is not surprising that the revised draft, thankfully leaked to the ABC last month, watered the strategy down to such an extent that the ACT government, noting meddling from the alcohol industry, declined to endorse it.

FARE has now analysed the differences between the drafts and allege they have “alcohol industry fingerprints all over” them. Language in the draft has been changed to allow for industry involvement in the reform process, for example.

The original draft had stated that “Australia does not support any ongoing role for industry” in developing alcohol policy and that industry should not be part of the reference group that was helping guide reform. Those statements were deleted in the revised version.

A section warning that Australia’s drinking culture was leading to dangerous consumption was also weakened. The language instead discussed drinking as a positive part of Australian culture.

The revised draft also weakened the language around the government’s imperative to act, and softened proposed policies on pricing and advertising regulation.

The last national alcohol strategy expired in 2011. The FARE chief executive, Michael Thorn, said he had fundamental concerns about the level of influence the alcohol industry was able to exert on government.

“It’s quite remarkable how politicians and governments want to cosy up to the alcohol industry,” Thorn said. “Yes, donations are part of explaining that. Yes, there is soft power that the alcohol industry’s lobbyists peddle around the parliament with their gifts and their events and their frequent access to members across all sides, not just with ministers, but also with backbenchers.

“It’s persistence, it’s organised, and it’s about building those relationships. In the end, it seems to overwhelm the system” he told the Guardian Australia.

Previous studies have shown the extent of alcohol industry donations to major political parties in Australia. Research published in the Drug and Alcohol Review last year showed the alcohol industry donated $7,650,858 in the 10 years to June 2015.

Though difficult to believe, it gets worse, for donations tended to increase during debates on potential reforms. Alcohol industry donations to the Labor government, for example, increased in 2008 and 2009 during the alcopops tax debate.

The FARE report comes as a newly published study suggests regulatory capture by the alcohol industry played a role in changes to the NSW alcohol supply laws introduced to state parliament in late 2015.

The University of Newcastle researcher Tony Brown developed a tool to test whether industry had achieved what he sensibly termed ‘legislative capture’.

“The industry’s power lies in its latent capacity to also influence and mobilise its many patrons, i.e. voters, and related third-party vocal interest groups to oppose any proposed laws that may inhibit their drinking patterns, a crucial factor in industry profits,” his study found.

The 2015 changes were “indicative of legislative capture and associated clientele corruption”, he found. Clientele corruption refers to the making of decisions not according to the best wishes of a government’s constituency, but in the best interests of those who have made sizeable financial contributions.

“The research found significant encroachment of the public interest and alcohol industry capture of the legislative process,” Brown said in a statement.

“Through this research I have developed a prototype legislative capture test, which identifies that the alcohol industry’s practise of making large political donations to buy influence fits the elements of regulatory capture, and may extend into the realm of ‘clientele corruption’ recognised by the high court of Australia,” he said.

At the time of writing, Health Minister Greg Hunt has declined to comment, though it is uncorrupted action that is needed, and needed now, before it is too late.