GEORGE RENNIE. Senate crossbenchers take the first steps on lobbying reform – now to ensure it succeeds.

The suite of codes, statements and laws governing lobbying are failing Australian voters. Yet, for decades, the two major parties have been unwilling to meaningfully improve them. But, having recognised the seriousness of the problems with lobbying and corruption in Australia, the Senate crossbenchers – along with lower house independents – have finally begun the process of deciding how lobbying reform should occur. Into this space, the Jacqui Lambie Network has released a policy that has become the starting point for negotiations on one of Australia’s most important policy challenges. 

Labor and the trade unions have signalled a willingness to tackle lobbying at some point. However, there are meaningful obstacles to the crossbench’s current plan. Given its control of the lower house, the Coalition would need to be brought on side for legislation to pass anytime soon. However, citing Australia’s performance on Transparency International’s corruption index, Attorney-General George Brandis is against a federal regulator to police anti-corruption. Similarly, the Institute of Public Affairs – a Liberal Party ideological ally – rejects the idea because such an agency might abuse its power. However, the crossbench has been more impressed by New South Wales’ Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), where the true “abuses of power” have been those uncovered by the commission.

Given the resistance from the Coalition, hope for changes to lobbying laws currently rest with the Senate crossbench and the lower house independents. They are negotiating a unified policy based on Lambie’s proposal. The policy acknowledges that new lobbying laws need to be legislated; have meaningful enforcement provisions (including the possibility of fines or imprisonment for serious offences; and have an independent regulator to oversee them.

Having an independent regulator is critical. As it stands, when a minister leaves office, their eligibility to work as a lobbyist, and whether they have breached any lobbying regulations, is determined by those who directly work with – or for – the Prime Minister. The problems of the revolving door are significant, and growing. It is now commonplace for former ministers to go on to work for companies directly related to their former portfolios – be it on their boards or as lobbyists.  This creates a clear conflict of interest for those ministers when they are in power. Their decisions while in power have the potential to affect the possibility of a job when they leave office. It also allows them far greater access to, and creates conflicts of interest for, the government decision-makers they meet. These are people they often worked with, for, or above.

As a result, Lambie’s plan would ban ministers and senior public servants from taking up lobbying positions within five years of leaving office. This is increased from the current, poorly-enforced 18-month ban. This move would bring Australia’s prohibition on post-separation employment in line with Canada and the US. Extending the exemption period of post-separation employment, and having an independent regulator to oversee it, would mean the potential for the aforementioned conflicts of interest and advantageous access are reduced.

Beyond the revolving door provisions, Lambie’s plan centres around the ideal of “levelling the playing field” for interest groups. This in turn is based on the problems that arise when some get better access than others. As such, Lambie’s plan borrows heavily from the overseas examples. It calls for more transparency in lobbying, incentives to join a register of lobbyists, and expanding the definition of “lobbyists” to include those who operate in-house (Australia’s register currently only captures third-party lobbyists). These goals may be in-part fulfilled by changing the access rules to the highly desired “orange passes” of Parliament House. Under Lambie’s plan, lobbyists are given incentives to join the register for better access to parliamentary offices.

This is an interesting idea, and is focused more on reward than punishment. If coupled with other monitoring conditions, it may improve the transparency of lobbying in Canberra – if only by increasing the likelihood that lobbyists will join the register. The orange pass concept would be augmented by an expansion of the definition of “lobbyist” to include those who directly represent their organisation, regardless of what it does. This would mean the professional representatives of unions and not-for-profit organisations are treated the same as those from corporations.

Ideally, a representative democracy supports “good lobbying”, where individuals and groups present their ideas, needs and wants on a level playing field. But the status quo in Australia acts to undermine this ideal. While its benefits are clear, democracy is a fragile system. Its strength is fundamentally reliant on institutional and legal supports, as well as an engaged and informed electorate.

This is where “bad lobbying” presents a significant threat: it uses weak laws and institutions to create an unfair playing field for a few to the detriment of the many, and undermines trust in the system. In turn, the electorate becomes cynical and disengaged. Democracy collapses when bad lobbying takes hold, and Australia’s bad lobbying has been steadily getting worse – and more pervasive.

In that critical sense, giving Australia’s lobbying laws teeth, and a sizeable regulatory jaw to occasionally brandish them, is a major step in the right direction.

George Rennie is Lecturer in American Politics and Lobbying Strategies, University of Melbourne.  He has played an unpaid advisory role to Senator Lambie’s office on its lobbying policy. He is otherwise politically unaffiliated.

First published in The Conversation, 23 October 2017

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7 Responses to GEORGE RENNIE. Senate crossbenchers take the first steps on lobbying reform – now to ensure it succeeds.

  1. Jaquix says:

    Good for Jacquie Lambie for coming up for a draft policy that they can all chew over. But I doubt the current government will allow this to pass in any form stricter than the present “rules”. However, there is a lot of work to be done, Im sure, and its good to have that groundwork done now. The minute we get a new government, it can be put on the long, long list of things that need to be fixed.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    good to see some movement, but the above is like throwing a toothpick to a dragon, and you are right: even throwing a toothpick will be resisted.
    One key problem is what to do with the large group of ex-ministers. They need to be kept busy on good things. Ideas?
    The second, related problem, is the culture of selfishness and wealth-status within political parties. Ideas?
    A third one is that so much of the national wealth has already been stolen now. Unless you reverse that, you saddle future generations of the 99% with third-class status from cradle to grave.

    • George Rennie says:

      Thanks for the message, Paul!

      I get your point: this is not enough.

      But it’s also a start, and there needs to be something — anything — beyond the current (essentially non-existent) anti-corruption and lobbying regulatory regime.

      Shifting to an independent regulator, rather than relying on the DPM&C and PMO is very important (more, I think than a mere toothpick). But ideally this body would also absorb anti-corruption powers, including investigation and prosecution, from the AFP (it’s a bad joke that they oversee these laws while acting under the direction of the Justice Minister; powers which will soon be transferred to homeland security portfolio).

      The second and third problems you identify are related: without some movement to curtail the worst of lobbying and corruption, any changes in the areas you mentioned are unlikely to say the least.

      Then we can set about reclaiming some of that lost national wealth. Tax reform, to capture a lot of the dodgy profit shifting and evasion, and a national resources tax would be high on my wish list.

      As for the selfishness within political parties, it strikes me that this problem is getting worse, but might this be precisely because so many recognise political life as a sure fire way to get a big corporate pay-cheque after retirement? My experience of many politicians and up-and-comers seems to suggest this may well be the case. Needless to say, if it is so, it comes at the expense of potential politicians who would actually like to serve their country, rather than their own self-interests.

      And those ex-ministers, there are plenty of positions in society for them to take up that would put their skills to good use, and present no major conflicts of interest. But it’s too on the nose when defence ministers go on to work for the same defence firms they awarded contracts to, and even took out to lunch on tax payer dollars while in office (I say this “hypothetically”, of course). This problem is endemic, and so undercuts our anti-corruption laws that we need to be somewhat more restrictive in this regard — 5 years may not be long enough, but it certainly shouldn’t be less.

      • paul frijters says:

        I agree it is important to push in the direction you want to go to. And stronger anti-lobbying laws are in the right direction. So let us hope this proposal is successful.

        I don’t think you can get substantial change without a significant popular movement that challenges the corruption in elections. Young smart Australians must be explained what is going on and given a leading role in thinking about their future. Our real hope must lie there.

  3. Julian says:

    @ Paul Frijters. 26 October 2017 at 6:03 PM.
    Agreed Paul – on all counts, but what do we do, and how?
    For me, there is no doubt that the reversal of the theft of national wealth is paramount, but the never ending “blame-game” and deeply embedded self-interest will ensure that any time this subject is raised – whether as a matter of the national interest or otherwise, most if not all politicians will say: Problem? What problem?

    • George Rennie says:

      “Problem? What problem?” is basically what Brandis said, on behalf of the government, in his submission to the Senate’s last (now abandoned) inquiry into a federal ICAC.

      You can either laugh or cry, I guess.

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