Revolving Doors: how the fossil fuel lobby has governments ensnared

by Adam Lucas | Feb 9, 2018 | Energy & Environment, Government

The polls are compelling. The wind has been sniffed. Federal Opposition leader Bill Shorten is finally making noises about pulling Labor support for Adani’s Carmichael coal project. Even surpassing the environmental madness of building the world’s biggest new thermal coal mine, the project is unbankable. It does not stack up financially. The price of generating renewable energy has plunged 50 per cent in two years and is now cheaper to deliver than new coal. Shorten is on firm ground electorally.

How did it even get this far? That such a white elephant is still staggering about, not quite dead yet, and still hopeful of more taxpayer subsidies, is testament to the power of the coal lobby in Australia. It is testament to the prolific connections between the resources lobby and government, the “revolving doors” between industry, the major political parties and the bureaucracy. Adam Lucas and Joel Rosenzveig Holland have built a database of this network of fossil fuel influence: the people, the insiders. Here, they discuss the major players as they unpack the web of self-interest which undermines democracy and favours corporate agendas above the welfare of ordinary Australians.

If the fossil fuel industry had a motto, it might be, “Never let the facts get in the way of our profits.” Despite receiving advice from their own scientists since the late 1970s that there was a causal link between fossil fuel consumption and dangerous anthropogenic climate change, the fossil fuel industry has for decades sought to undermine the science, and has expended considerable financial and political capital to block any efforts to make the necessary transition to less polluting alternatives.

The industry’s role in sowing doubt and confusion over the science of climate change is by now well-known and widely documented. What is less well-known is its preoccupation with infiltrating democratic governments by providing financial, logistical and personnel support to those political parties, governments and individuals which are most likely to serve its interests. Indeed, as public awareness of fossil-fuel driven climate change and the need for action has grown, the fossil fuel lobby appears to have ramped up its efforts to gain control over government policy and favourably influence public opinion.

The great gas con: how Australia got sucked dry

Concerned at the hollowing-out of democracy, which these trends clearly demonstrate, we began last year to consolidate and extend the work of journalists and researchers who had chronicled some of this revolving-door activity in an attempt to determine just how extensive the influence of the fossil fuel industry has been on the nation’s policy-makers.

“So far, we have managed to compile a list of well over 150 former and

current politicians, political advisors and bureaucrats who have

either moved from the fossil fuel and mining industries

into public office or vice-versa over the past decade”

We admit to being shocked at the extent of this influence at multiple levels of government. So far, we have managed to compile a list of well over 150 former and current politicians, political advisors and bureaucrats who have either moved from the fossil fuel and mining industries into public office or vice-versa over the past decade. These constitute a veritable army of lobbyists, senior executives, spin doctors and consultants acting with a single aim in mind: political and policy support for the fossil fuel industry and its allies in business and industry.

We have also found that senior politicians in relevant ministerial portfolios continue to hire people who have come straight from the mining industry, and who return to work in mining straight after leaving government.

Martin Ferguson

In early 2013, for example, Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson resigned from his portfolio, which was subsequently filled by former Woodside executive and WA Member for Brand, Gary Gray. Ferguson retired from politics after Labor’s election defeat in September 2013, taking on a senior role at industry lobbyists the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) only six months later.

Ferguson was also made a board member of British Gas, an appointment which could reasonably be interpreted as a reward for services rendered while in public office, given his facilitation (of the sale of Queensland’s gas before State or Commonwealth assessment and approvals) of BG’s $20 billion Curtis LNG/CSG export project in Queensland while resources minister. Unsurprisingly, Gray followed in his predecessor’s footsteps, joining Mineral Resources Ltd as general manager of external affairs just days after his 2016 retirement from politics.

Commonly known in the US as “the revolving door”, these activities have long been the focus of investigations by journalists, academics and activists concerned about their potentially toxic effects on democratic process, and their distortion of public policy in the service of more narrow interests.

These researchers have understandably raised questions about the probity and ethics of those concerned, including the companies and industry bodies that seek to employ them in whatever capacity. In some countries, most notably Canada and Ireland, there are strict laws governing such behaviour. Unfortunately for Australians, the best the major parties have come up with are “guidelines” which are frequently and flagrantly ignored.

Our disquiet with the ethics of this situation is that these individuals had, or acquired, detailed inside knowledge of public policy on issues which directly affected the future ability of those industries to maintain their market dominance, and which afforded their industries significant political and economic advantage.

One arena of such corporate advantage is tax, where the lobbying muscle of oil giants Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell and others have saved them from paying billions of dollars in income tax and PRRT as successive governments dithered over reform and enforcement.

Monster gas projects may pay no tax and royalties on $33B a year

Given the recent political controversies over support for the Adani coal mine in Queensland, and the opposition of certain elements within the Federal Coalition to urgently needed reforms of the country’s energy sector, the relationships between industry and the political classes should be of concern to all Australians. The previously cited example of Martin Ferguson’s elevation to executive positions within the industry is only one in a long list of dubious concessions made by the Labor, Liberal and National parties to the siren song of fossil fuel advocacy. Other prominent examples in recent times include:

Ian Macfarlane

Perhaps the most notorious of revolving door incidents in recent times is Ian Macfarlane, former Federal Minister for Energy and Resources and self-confessed member of John Howard’s “Greenhouse Mafia”, who took up the role of CEO of the Queensland Resources Council within weeks of leaving his ministerial position, reportedly because Malcolm [Turnbull] was cool about it.

We have found even more egregious examples of senior bureaucrats and policy advisors moving backwards and forwards between government positions and industry. In 2009, for example, Brad Burke left his role as senior strategist to then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to become Director of Corporate Affairs at Santos, before returning to Prime Minister Turnbull’s office in 2015 as his Deputy Chief of Staff; Burke now works for Shell Australia. Similarly, in 2012, Mitch Grayson worked as Senior Media Advisor to then-Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, before spending roughly a year as a senior advisor on the Santos GLNG project, during which time it signed a major cooperation deal with Pacific LNG. Less than a month after this deal was inked, Grayson was back at Premier Newman’s office, where he remained until the Newman Government’s defeat in 2015.

Some the most alarming examples of industry influence we have uncovered relate to several members of Martin Ferguson’s ministerial staff, several of whom took up highly paid positions in the same industry over which they had previously exercised oversight immediately after leaving public office between the middle of 2010 and 2013. These include:

  • Ferguson’s secretary, John Pierce, who became chairman of the Australian Energy Market Commission,
  • Ferguson’s policy advisor between March 2008 and May 2010, Michael Bradley, who took up the position of Director of External Affairs in APPEA from May 2010 to May 2015;
  • another Ferguson policy advisor between August 2010 and March 2013, James Sorahan, who immediately took up a position as Director of Taxation for the Minerals Council of Australia, a position which he retains to this day;
  • Ferguson’s Principal Policy Advisor and Chief of Staff between 2003 and 2010, Tracey Winters, who had previously worked for Chevron and Woodside Energy, took up senior positions in Queensland Gas Company/BG Group between 2011 and 2015, and since 2016 has been working as an advisor for Caltex.

Winters worked for Martin Ferguson when he was Shadow Minister for four years before Labor won office federally in 2007.

Tracey Winters

According to Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham, Winters is the partner of Craig Emerson, who was Federal Trade Minister in late 2010; that is, the couple both held influential positions at the time of the Commonwealth approval of the first East Coast CSG-LNG projects: Santos GLNG and QGC’s QCLNG projects.

To demonstrate the fossil fuel industry’s bipartisan commitment to influence peddling, even more members of Ian Macfarlane’s ministerial staff have made the transition to or from industry employment prior to entering, or shortly after leaving, public office. These include:

  • Macfarlane’s chief of staff between 2001 and 2004, Stephen Galilee, who went on to become NSW Shadow Treasurer Mike Baird’s chief of staff between 2004 and 2011, prior to becoming CEO of the NSW Minerals Council from the year he left Baird’s office to the present;
  • Macfarlane’s chief of staff in 2006 and 2007, Malcolm Roberts, who was Executive Director of the National Generators Forum between 2009 and 2011, then Chief Executive Officer for the Energy Networks Association between 2011 and 2013, before re-entering government as a policy advisor to Queensland Premier Campbell Newman between 2013 and 2015, and who is now CEO of APPEA;

    Stephen Galilee

  • Macfarlane’s chief of staff in 2015, Sarah McNamara, who had previously worked for Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Federal Minister Helen Coonan, who did a five year stint as Head of Government Affairs with AGL Energy between 2008 and 2013, before returning to AGL in 2016 as General Manager of Corporate Affairs;
  • Macfarlane’s policy advisor between September 2013 and August 2015, Linday Hermes, who was Media and Communications Manager for the NSW Minerals Council between August 2010 and August 2013;
  • Robert Underdown, a senior advisor to Macfarlane while still Shadow Minister between 2007 and 2009, who immediately took up senior positions with Santos between 2009 and 2015, and now works as Head of Government Affairs for Caltex;
  • Claire Wilkinson, who was Senior Media Advisor to Macfarlane as Minister for Resources between November 2006 and December 2007, who immediately took up a position as Senior External Affairs Advisor to Royal Dutch Shell until May 2012, and External Affairs Manager for Total Australia between May 2012 and June 2016.

Clearly, the fossil fuel industries hire these people because they are convinced their connections enhance  access to and influence over government policy, and there is convincing evidence that industry has ramped up its efforts over the last ten years to infiltrate government at the highest levels.

Corporate lobbying a billion dollar business

Australia desperately needs laws at the state and federal level which prevent politicians, bureaucrats and policy advisors from taking positions in the private sector directly related to their portfolio responsibilities while in government immediately, or soon after, leaving public office. In Canada, the cooling off period was set at two years, though we would argue that the relevant period should be at least five years.

It also remains the case that not all Australian jurisdictions publicly disclose or even retain records of lobbyist visits to ministers and senior bureaucrats. And even in those jurisdictions that do keep public registers, there are arguably glaring omissions and inconsistencies in the kinds of records that are kept which are neither easy to access or search.

It is clear from our research that a federal anti-corruption body must be created. Australia also needs much stronger disclosure laws in relation to campaign financing and political party donations along the lines of those suggested by the Australian Greens, Victorian Labor (to have the strictest and most transparent in the country), Queensland Labor  and Federal Labor.  However, we would argue that all institutional funding should be excluded from Australian politics, including funding of the Labor Party and Australian Greens by the union movement.

Foreign donations should be banned, and all donations over $1000 should be disclosed in real time, with caps placed on donations from individuals and the quantum of public funding provided to political parties on the basis of their electoral support during elections significantly increased to minimise the need for fundraising.

The truth about political donations: what we don’t know

Truth in political advertising and stronger laws holding mainstream media to account for misreporting and factual inaccuracies should also be implemented to preclude the kind of fake news that has recently begun to proliferate across multiple media platforms. It is one thing to allow these stories to circulate on the fringes of the internet, and quite another to repeat and amplify them through mainstream media outlets, which, after all, are given social licences to broadcast on the basis that they serve some minimum public interest criteria.

It may sound like hyperbole to argue that the future of our democracy is currently at stake, but we argue that it is even more serious than that. Climate scientists have been sounding increasingly dire warnings about planetary boundaries being breached over the next few decades: an inevitability if the fossil fuel industry is allowed to continue to have a free hand in determining our energy future. It is not just democracy at stake.


Joel Rosenzveig Holland is a Sydney-based researcher interested in democratic renewal, emergent economic structures and environmental justice. He is midway through a Masters in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, and works part-time as a bicycle mechanic. 

Simone Marsh assisted in the editing of this story.

Dr Adam Lucas is a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. His research interests include climate change and energy policy, the corporatization of public institutions, and global tax avoidance. He is also currently co-investigator on a historical research project with colleagues at the University of Glasgow into the first energy transition from waterpower to steam and coal in the British textile industry. Prior to taking up his current position at UoW, he worked as a researcher and policy analyst for the New South Wales Government in The Cabinet Office, State and Regional Development, Aboriginal Affairs and Housing. As a founding member of Public Universities Australia and Academics for Public Universities, he has also published extensively on the reform of Australia's higher education system.

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