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Keeping buoyant in a sea of lobbyists

Tasmanian senator Peter Whish-Wilson filled Bob Brown’s former seat in the senate. Photo Jeff Dawson

Tasmanian senator Peter Whish-Wilson filled Bob Brown’s former seat in the senate. Photo Jeff Dawson

Hans Lovejoy

Meet one of only two politicians who doesn’t wear a tie in the federal senate: Tasmanian Greens MP Peter Whish-Wilson.

The scruffy economist, environmental campaigner, surfer and ex-winemaker replaced Bob Brown in the Senate last year and was in town last week, meeting with marine conservation groups and trying to ‘tempt’ former NSW Greens MP Ian Cohen out retirement to help with the cash-for-containers campaign.

‘Ian’s done a lot on this topic in the past and his help would be very valuable,’ he says.

Cash for containers

As an environmental campaigner, Senator Whish-Wilson has focused his passion for the ocean on its preservation.

He says the biggest threat to marine life is our rubbish, and the way to address it is to go to the source.

Back in the 80s and 90s, Australia had the scheme in place; aluminium cans and bottles were returned to a depot for cash.

Fast forward, or perhaps rewind, and South Australia and the Northern Territory remain as the only states that recycle drink containers.

The container deposit scheme (CDS) has attracted a lot of recent alternative media traction; mainstream media recently refused to screen an advertisement that highlighted the destructive effects of plastic on marine life.

But at the heart of this battle are retail lobbyists who are desperate to maintain a somewhat twisted narrative: they say returning to a national container recycling scheme would be ‘inefficient and inequitable’ despite it being successful in two states.

Senator Whish-Wilson says the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) lobby group represents special-interest groups Coca-Cola, Lion and Schweppes and is the most vocal in opposing it.

Needless to say, the Greens senator says these lobbyists have never come to see him.

Instead he’s been working closely with the Boomerang Alliance (www.boomerangalliance.org.au) to get their message through about recycling the estimated eight billion containers produced nationally every year.

‘If you put a value on rubbish, it no longer becomes rubbish. What we are asking for is to add ten cents to a bottle’s price; then, when recycled, the ten cents is returned. It’s a no-brainer that would decrease litter and create instant jobs,’ Senator Whish-Wilson said.

Senate inquiry

A senate inquiry he initiated on November 7 last year examined the connection between cash-for-container schemes and lower levels of marine plastic pollution.

According to the Boomerang Alliance, the inquiry ‘unanimously reported that the AFGC research was based on “weak methodology and poor data”.’

‘For example the council assumed the ten cent deposit would not be redeemed by any consumers (when 80 per cent redemption is common) and that all beverage prices will rise by 20 cents (despite this never occurring in either state),’ the senator said.

The Alliance also claims the CSIRO mapped plastic debris and ‘reported there is far less plastic bottle litter coming off SA shores.’

Lobby lowdown

Not all lobbyists are necessarily bad, but many are very close associates of politicians. Often they attended university together or have work-related connections. Many are former advisers or MPs.

And as Senator Whish-Wilson says, ‘They wear out the carpets in politician’s offices’.

There are 595 registered lobbyists listed with www.lobbyists.pmc.gov.au, and they all operate under the Lobbying Code of Conduct.

Its preamble states, ‘The Lobbying Code of Conduct is intended to promote trust in the integrity of government processes and ensure that contact between lobbyists and government representatives is conducted in accordance with public expectations of transparency, integrity and honesty.’

The most powerful lobbyists in Canberra, Senator Whish-Wilson says, are from the mining, pokie and beverage industries.

‘The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is also very influential,’ he says, ‘obviously campaigning against same-sex marriage… but perhaps the slickest I’ve seen yet is the Food and Grocery Council, who primarily represent both Coles and Woolies,’ he said.

When asked if their duopoly would ever be addressed, he says that without a strengthened Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), there will be no changes.

It’s the ‘special interest effect’ that determines many political outcomes, he says.

‘A politician weighs up what will eventuate if they go with, or against, a lobbyist’s wishes.

‘It’s called the “special interest effect”, which also depends on “rational ignorance”.

‘That’s another term that refers to the public’s ignorance on a topic.’

 


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Some of The Echo’s editorial team: journalists Paul Bibby and Aslan Shand, editor Hans Lovejoy, photographer Jeff Dawson and Mandy Nolan

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