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Cheap Influence in National Politics: How Panasonic buy time on our public broadcaster

Tim Blair broke the story of Tim Flannery claiming to be working for Panasonic. (But wait, I hear you say, how could that be,  we thought he was working for the Australian people?!)

If you are a foreign multinational and you want to influence national Australian policies, you don’t need to spend much. Prime time advertising in Australia is as cheap as chips, but it only works on politically correct topics where our national broadcaster (the ABC) will give you a free pass. When it comes to climate change, ABC adverts don’t interrupt the program, they are the program.

Flannery has been on ABC’s Q&A five times, ABC’s Lateline three times [1,2,3,], the ABC’s 7.30 report, ABC breakfast, ABC Latenight live, something on the ABC called Conversations, and too many radio spots to mention. When people question whether Tim Flannery ought be proud of promoting an electronics giant at the same time as he is paid for government funded work … the ABC comes out defending him, and their no-hard-questions approach to promoting what he promotes.

It’s not that someone of his notoriety shouldn’t be getting ABC airtime, it’s that he gets away with failed predictions, half truths, and is allowed to push his agenda without analysis or scrutiny.

Naturally if Tim Flannery helps swing Australia into the low carbon pit, then Panasonic will be there to reap the profits.

It’s disguised third party endorsements on the “government funded TV channel-that-doesn’t-do-adverts”. The ABC rightly point out that they haven’t been promoting Panasonic, which is true. But when Tim says he’s “been waving the Panasonic flag”, it’s not that he’s selling the brand Panasonic, instead he’s selling their brand of policy.  Panasonic can blitz their non green competition if Australia goes “low-carbon”. And won’t they sell a magnitude more solar cells and rechargeable car batteries  if the government mandates “greenness”?

The cost of influence?

Panasonic Australia pledged $690,000 to fund environmental research and public education as part of a new Macquarie University eco initiative.

Internationally acclaimed Australian scientist, explorer and conservationist, Professor Tim Flannery, has been appointed as the inaugural chair. As part of the agreement Macquarie University will provide global Panasonic executives with briefings on green issues, as Panasonic moves towards becoming the world’s number one environmental technology innovation company. Professor Flannery is expected to present a whitepaper to executives in Japan on emerging consumer attitudes towards environmental products later this year.

It’s a bargain

We’ll never know how much extra air-time Flannery got indirectly thanks to Panasonic. But they made some contribution to all that prime time endorsement and it was for just $690,000? Let’s face it, even if Panasonic did buy advertising, the Australian voter wouldn’t be impressed with a large foreign multinational telling them they should pay a carbon tax (and buy Panasonic solar cells). It’s o’ so much more convincing if a neutral scientist does it for them. Given how much prime time TV space Flannery wins, you’d have to say the Panasonic ad campaign budget was money well spent.

A little history on Panasonic’s green plans

Over the next three years, the company wants to double sales of products that meet Energy Star requirements, carry the EPEAT silver or gold labels or meet its own Panasonic Superior Green Products standards. And perhaps Panasonic is just trying to be good corporate citizens after all? But Greenpeace don’t think they’re very green. It looks like a green veneer.

Panasonic bought Sanyo in a bid to have a larger control of green markets in 2008 – which gave it nearly 40% of the rechargeable car batteries market globally, and made it the supplier for four different makes of electric cars. At least one commentator at the time asked if Panasonic were set to become “a green monster”, and pointed out that the Panasonic executives effectively agreed that greenhouse policies made a big difference to their bottom line:

“The management of power is critical to any Company competing in the consumer electronics market going forward”. They wanted in on the green profits:  We need another engine for growth,” Panasonic President Fumio Ohtsubo told reporters, acknowledging that plunging gadget prices were eating away at electronics profits. “We need another pillar for far greater growth. And Sanyo was that best partner.”

Panasonic didn’t have a solar cell line, and Sanyo did.

The acquisition of Sanyo would see Panasonic’s share of the global market for rechargeable batteries surge from 10% to 38%, according to Goldman Sachs. Sanyo is the world’s No 1 producer of lithium-ion batteries, used in laptops, cameras, mobile phones – and new green cars. This market segment is set for explosive growth as governments around the world tighten greenhouse gas emissions standards for vehicles.

Panasonic already makes batteries for Toyota’s hybrid cars. In buying Sanyo, it would take on contracts to supply rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars to leading carmakers Volkswagen, Honda and Ford.

The electric vehicle batteries market is estimated to become so lucrative that 15 US technology companies formed a consortium in December to build local battery plants to end Asian dominance.

Panasonic also went on to spend $30m to buy a stake in an electric vehicle maker. $690,000 is just chump change.

Flannery explains his Panasonic role

My association with Panasonic, which sponsors my Professorial Chair at Macquarie University, has been public and declared from the day I took up my position as Chief Climate Commissioner.  There is no conflict of interest between the two roles.

My comments were made in the context of describing the work I have been doing on educating young Australians about sustainability at Macquarie University.  To be clear, I have not advocated Panasonic as a company in my public engagements as Chief Commissioner, nor have I done so in my books or television work.

So here’s the chain. Panasonic stand to benefit from an Australian green tax, so they “sponsor” Flannery and Macquarie to be their PR team (because the answers they find are so convenient). For the same reason, the Australian government pays Flannery to be the PR team on their policy (so there is no conflict of interest after all!). Flannery claims he’s just presenting “the” science, but in the end, the Australian people pay tax so they only hear one side of the story, and another so-called scientist is “bought”.

When a scientist advises a nation on decisions that affect billions of dollars and millions of lives, shouldn’t we expect the same standards as when a doctor advises one person on an issue of their health? If it’s not OK for big-pharma to sponsor doctors, why is it ok for Big-Green Government or business to sponsor a scientist?

Me, I’m a libertarian and a free market girl. I don’t want to censor funding in science, and that funding wouldn’t matter if only the science commentators and so-called journalists weren’t so willing to promote the industry-funded scientist as if he were “neutral”.  If they laughed at his gall and his failed predictions and promoted scientists with evidence, logic and reason, instead of fawning over “establishment credentials” and book sales, the national debate on scientific topics wouldn’t be a gift for big-industry to exploit.

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