Controlling lobbyists is needed to increase trust in government

Jul 8, 2021

Good and bad government behaviour, the management of crises, lack of accountability, preferencing of mates, the favouring of powerful interests, undue influence and lobbying, they all impact on people’s trust in government.

Surveys by reputable bodies show that levels of trust have waxed and waned over the years and, while correlated to the quality of administrations and the behaviour of officials both elected and permanent, the reasons vary.

Declining public trust can be catastrophic for leaders and their administrations. They have been removed from office, some have been imprisoned and a few have lost their heads.

Fortunately in Australia there is little prospect of any leaders losing their head because the public no longer trusts them. Thankfully we are more civil than that, despite what many people see as repeated trust-dissipating behaviour by governments.

It used to be said that the public was prepared to tolerate all sorts of egregious behaviour by politicians – up to the point they ‘put their hand in the till’. I wonder if this remains the case, given the Morrison Government approach to accountability and the apparent indifference by a large proportion of the public to this.

Researchers have reported that over recent years trust in government has been in long-run decline and it has only been the Covid-19 pandemic that has seen this decline reversed. This is important because public trust is an essential part of confidence in government and an important factor in general satisfaction with democracy. As the OECD says:

“trust in government by citizens and businesses is essential for the effective and efficient policy making both in good times and bad”.

The Morrison Government has sorely tested the public’s trust in government. The car park rorts exposed by the Auditor General is just another example in a long list of its trust-undermining actions. The debacle over the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines is another, and the intransigence about responsibility for quarantine is a further example.

So how can trust in government be restored?

It seems to me there are three ways to ensure trust in government. First, to elect a government whose leader is honest and decent and committed to behaving ethically and in the public interest. Second, that the public punishes governments who transgress these decent standards by removing them from office. Third, that the system embraces rules and regulations overseen by independent authorities to police and enforce standards of behaviour in the public interest.

It is this third approach that Australia and other democracies have resorted to in the face of failures by the political class to behave ethically, honestly and in the public interest. Some of the independent bodies have been a feature of public administration for a long time, such as auditors general. Over the last 30 years, independent crime and anti-corruption bodies have been established as a further protection of the public interest.

All Australian states and territories have legislated to established independent anti-corruption bodies. Not so the Commonwealth.

Corrupt behaviour never goes away and Australia’s longest standing anti-corruption body, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), knows this only too well. It has always had a full dance card of investigations and over the years it has been responsible for exposing small- and large-scale corrupt behaviour. People have gone to jail. Premiers have lost their jobs.

In its ongoing efforts to prevent corruption, ICAC last month published its report into regulating the activities of lobbyists, “Investigation into the regulation of lobbying, access and influence in NSW”. The report is a follow-up to ICAC’s 2010 report Investigation into corruption risks involved in lobbying, which made 17 recommendations – of which only five of the less consequential were implemented.

This latest report makes important recommendations to deal with pernicious lobbying and undue influence in NSW public administration.

ICAC’s report makes nine key findings. Among them are that new legislation is required to safeguard the public interest against the inherent lobbying risks of corruption and undue influence; a need for a dedicated lobbying commissioner; the obligations and conduct of government officials in processing and determining lobbying proposals should be codified; the definition of lobbyists should be expanded to rope in more lobbying activity; lobbying regulation should be extended to local government; and the movement of certain former public officials between the government sector and lobbying roles should be limited.

ICAC wants real regulation of lobbying with its unfairness and the inherent risks of corruption.

A frequent refrain about politicians’ is that ‘they are only in it for themselves’. While this certainly doesn’t apply to all politicians, there is clear evidence that it does to many. Too many take advantage of the ‘revolving door’ where ministers, staff and senior officials move from government into lobbying. As the Grattan Institute claimed in 2019:

Ministers are more likely to go from politics to lucrative lobbying roles rather than the other way around (a ‘golden escalator’ rather than a revolving door). Since 1990, more than a quarter of former federal ministers or assistant ministers have taken up roles with special interests after political life. Former government officials also make up a large and growing share of commercial lobbyists at the federal level. [p.2]

During the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison period several high-profile former ministers landed themselves nice little earners in lobbyland, including Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and Christopher Pine. Bruce Bilson even managed to get himself onto his new employer’s payroll before he left Parliament.

This behaviour merely reinforces the public’s view that they are only in it for themselves and adds to the cynicism and distrust in government. The Commonwealth has been especially tardy about addressing lobbying, undue influence, and corrupt practice in public administration. It promised a Federal Integrity Commissioner but has yet to act on its own weak proposal, it brushes off highly critical reports of rorting and has become a master of the ‘nothing to see here’ defence.

ICAC’s report affords an opportunity to in part address this cynicism and distrust. It is unclear whether the Berejiklian Government will accept ICAC’s recommendations, but no matter as the report serves as a model for better managing the influence of lobbyists for all jurisdictions, especially the Commonwealth.

Putting in place a tough framework modelled on ICAC’s recommendations would be one sure way of protecting the public interest and strengthening the public’s trust in government.

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