Who contributes to policy reviews?

Do some people have too much influence over public policy in Australia? Grattan’s 2018 report Who’s in the room? showed that access and influence are heavily skewed towards the businesses and unions that have the most to gain (and lose) from policy decisions. And this blog post shows that older people, and men, were heavily over-represented in submissions to the 2015 Tax White Paper.

Treasury received 870 formal submissions to its 2015 review of the tax and transfer system. As Figure 1 shows, men were vastly over-represented among the 470 submissions from individuals, and so were people aged 60 or older.

Figure 1

Those ‘in the know’ tend to be the dominant contributors to these sorts of processes. As Figure 2 shows, the financial and professional services industries together represented 57 per cent of the 400 submissions to the Tax White Paper from organisations, despite collectively representing only 18 per cent of the economy. These types of businesses tend to be most familiar with the tax system – after all, tax advice is a big part of what they do. But the flip side is that they also have a larger vested interest than most.

Figure 2

Highly motivated and well-resourced interests have greater capacity to organise and contribute to policy review processes. And this can translate to policy influence. Our research shows that Australia’s checks and balances on influence are weak, and that sometimes bad policy is made or good policy is dropped because powerful groups have more say than they should. As Figure 3 shows, researchers at the ANU have found that business groups are more than twice as likely to be mentioned in parliamentary debates as any other type of interest group – a sign of prominence and likely influence.

Figure 3

Australia’s tax and transfer system affects each and every one of us. Unless our politicians and public servants actively seek out other voices, they won’t get a representative view. Governments should boost countervailing voices through more inclusive policy review processes and by supporting advocacy for under-represented groups. This would give politicians better information with which to adjudicate the public interest.