GiftsTravel and hospitality

The public cost of private gifts

Much is made of the corrupting impact of political donations but little attention is paid to the non-monetary kind: gifts, free travel and hospitality that many federal parliamentarians eagerly accept from vested interests. Open Politics looks at the risk these benefits pose and the need for reform.

By Sean Johnson
1 December 2022


Corruption tends to begin small.

As the late screenwriter Robert Caswell observed with his 1983 ABC miniseries Scales of Justice, “Corruption doesn’t start with a ten thousand-dollar bribe, it starts at the lowest level of compromise, such as a half-priced hamburger.”

Over time the gifts and complimentary services increase in value and frequency, and eventually public officials can find themselves captured and acting against the public interest.

If a half-priced hamburger is enough to begin compromising someone, you have to wonder what Caswell would make of all the gifts, sponsored travel and hospitality parliamentarians and their families accept from rent-seeking companies, lobby groups, and foreign governments.

The goodies include tickets to the Melbourne Cup Birdcage, AFL and NRL Grand Finals, the State of Origin, the Ashes, the Bledisloe Cup, opening nights of musicals and plays, food, cases of alcohol, overseas trips, and first and business class upgrades.

Given Caswell has shuffled off this mortal coil we can’t be sure of his position, but we’ll hazard a guess he’d take a dim view of it. Open Politics certainly does. The organisations and governments that provide gifts are obviously not doing it because they are kind benefactors. They are trying to influence parliamentarians to support, and at a minimum not hinder, their agendas. To put it plainly, the practice leaves politicians indebted.

The science behind this is the norm of reciprocity. As Heath Shive puts it in ‘Gift Giving Psychology: The Norm of Reciprocity‘, if someone gives you something you feel obliged to return the favour. Humans have been enculturated to act this way.

The norm works well in most social contexts, such as families and friends exchanging Christmas presents and taking turns to host dinners. But it is often misused by people to extract benefits for themselves. Shive refers to psychologist Robert Cialdini’s study of the Hare Krishna religious movement offering flowers to people at US airports to try to guilt trip them to make a donation, a tactic immortalised in the 1980 movie Flying High!



Shive highlights the norm can work even when the provider of the gift is not likeable. A 1971 study by Dennis Regan from Cornell University involved sets of two students and sought to test whether offering someone a free coke would make them more willing to buy raffle tickets. The accomplice student would intentionally make themselves either likeable or unlikeable to the other student before proceeding to try to sell them tickets, sometimes offering a coke and sometimes not. The study found that, regardless of the accomplice’s likeability, they sold almost double the number of tickets if they offered a coke first.

We shouldn’t be surprised then that people like Qantas CEO Alan Joyce have influence with politicians. He may be unlikeable for his treatment of Qantas workers and travellers and for retaining JobKeeper payments, but while ever he keeps providing politicians with Chairman’s Lounge, flight upgrades, and gifts, Qantas faces a low risk of any consumer or competition reforms that could harm the airline’s commercial interests.

Reform

The consensus in Australian politics appears to be that conflicts of interest can be neutralised by parliamentarians disclosing gifts on the parliamentary interests registers.

But transparency has its limits. The mere disclosure of a gift does not necessarily negate its potential to compromise the recipient. It could even make matters worse. In our view an unintended consequence of the interests registers is that they have normalised the acceptance of gifts, travel and hospitality. Parliamentarians declare so many freebies so often that disclosure has lost much of its impact.

It means Communications Minister Michelle Rowland can enjoy entertainment from gambling, sports and broadcasting companies – three areas she regulates – and no one makes much of a fuss. The same can be said for Resources Minister Madeleine King, who recently accepted accommodation and air travel from the mining sector as part of her tour of the Pilbara.

Clearly sunlight is not always the best disinfectant. Open Politics argues there needs to be a prohibition on parliamentarians accepting gifts and other benefits from individuals, private organisations, and foreign governments. The only exceptions would be benefits of nominal value that parliamentarians might receive when visiting organisations or speaking at public events, including refreshments and minor gifts like pens, calendars, coffee mugs.

We have spent the past few months lobbying MPs and senators on this, but our efforts have been wholly unsuccessful, even with several independents elected on integrity platforms.

Before the election one prominent independent committed to Open Politics to not accept any gifts or other benefits, but on being elected promptly took a complimentary membership of the luxury Qantas Chairman’s Lounge – they justified this by saying the lounge was useful. And other parliamentarians have claimed they'd never return a favour to an organisation that had provided them with a gift, which would make them the first humans in history to be immune from the norm of reciprocity.

While Australian politicians are decidedly unenthusiastic about a ban, another Westminster legislature has had no issue introducing one: the Canadian Parliament. Since 2004 members of the House of Commons and their families have been prohibited under a conflict of interest code from accepting “gifts or other benefits that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the Members in the exercise of a duty or function of their office.” The Canadian Senate has an even tougher code that prohibits gifts or other benefits related to a senator’s position.

Both codes however permit gifts received “as a normal expression of courtesy or protocol, or within the customary standards of hospitality”, including pins, pens, notepads, and keychains.

It’s about time the Australian parliament adopted a similar code to reduce the risk of corruption. Along with donations reform and a tough federal ICAC, the reform might also help restore public confidence in federal politics.

No more half-priced hamburgers.

This article builds on an earlier reform proposal published in April 2022.