Wining, dining and corporate gifts: Is hospitality guilty of buying favours?

Australia’s politicians and rule-makers have come under scrutiny this week for allowing and accepting undisclosed gifts from the industries they regulate – including ours.

Debate about the ethics of corporate hospitality has been fuelled by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Graeme Samuel, who criticised a lack of clarity and accountability around corporate gift giving, particularly in relation to industry watchdogs such as the ACCC and ASIC.

 “If you’re in the public eye you really need to be in the position to say: ‘I’ve nothing to hide’”, he told Fairfax Media.

The debate has spread to embrace the larger question of how and why corporate largesse is lavished on politicians, celebrities and other influential figures.

The Australian Hotels Association is among a host of leading corporate bodies to host major sporting events in recent years, while some 60 complimentary accommodation upgrades at Hilton, Crown, Shangri-La and Sheraton hotels have been lavished on Australia’s likely next PM, Bill Shorten.

Flight upgrades and airline club lounge privileges, meanwhile, are regularly bestowed on politicians.

Mr Samuel said corporate gifts and hospitality, including at major sporting events, were often key to corporate strategies for influencing regulators and politicians and were about “ingratiation”.

“Gifts and hospitality are not given for reasons of altruism,” he said. “It’s about creating that sense of obligation or a relationship so that officials start to think ‘maybe I shouldn’t be as tough on this lot’.”

And he argued regulators and politicians should refuse all complimentary perks, including entertainment at sporting events.

Asked if the accommodation industry was guilty of trying to buy influence, Carol Giuseppi of Tourism Accommodation Australia said it was acting within acceptable boundaries.

“In terms of hotels, upgrades are provided to VIPs (not just politicians) in recognition of their position and their ability to generate positive word of mouth on their experience at that hotel,” she argued.

“Authentic messages through ‘word of mouth’ is a key part of any marketing strategy.”

Richard Munro of the Accommodation Association of Australia agreed, putting the onus on those in power to behave responsibly over corporate largesse.

“Sports sell hospitality packages to support the respective sports, how that product is used/utilized is up to the person or company that purchased the product.

“I would have thought government employees and politicians would have some type of duty to disclose gifts over a certain value.”

Graeme Samuel disagrees, arguing the strategy behind the national schmoozing culture is far more insidious.

He says small individual gifts of the odd bottle of wine, ritzy dinner, room upgrade or ticket freebie allow obligation to build.

“Then it comes back; someone will been seeking a clearance on a company merger or they will under investigation; suddenly the ingratiation comes home to roost.”

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