Lobby Land -Dan Conifer. Queensland integrity watchdog backs review of lobbying laws.(ABC 7.30,28 Nov. 2020)

Dec 2, 2020

The ABC’s 7.30 program this week highlighted the regular, high-level access Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Government has given to a select group of lobbyists. The politically connected lobbying firms represent multi-million and multi-billion dollar companies hoping to influence government decisions.

Political lobbying laws in Queensland should be reviewed, the state’s integrity watchdog has declared, amid renewed concerns about the industry.

The ABC’s 7.30 program this week highlighted the regular, high-level access Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Government has given to a select group of lobbyists.

The politically connected lobbying firms represent multi-million and multi-billion dollar companies hoping to influence government decisions.

Two lobbyists who were previously Labor Party powerbrokers, Evan Moorhead and Cameron Milner, also played key roles in Ms Palaszczuk’s recent election victory.

The presence of the two men inside the ALP campaign — who would then be lobbying for policy outcomes from the Government they helped install — has led to calls for change.

Queensland’s integrity commissioner, Nikola Stepanov, who oversees lobbyists in the state, said the current legislation should be reassessed.

Queensland Integrity Commissioner Nikola Stepanov.
Queensland integrity commissioner Nikola Stepanov says issues surrounding lobbying have become more complex.(Queensland Integrity Commission)

“There has been a pronounced rise in demand for services provided by this commission,” Dr Stepanov told 7.30.

“Various issues have developed and others have become increasingly more complex.

“I acknowledge the heightened public interest in lobbying matters, and I consider there are a number of areas that would benefit from further and considered review.

“I would therefore support any overall review of the lobbying provisions of the act as part of the strategic review of the integrity commissioner’s functions due next year.”

Queensland’s integrity act requires former ministers and staff to undertake a two-year cooling-off period between working in government and lobbying on matters that relate to their official dealings in government.

A review of the integrity commissioner’s performance and functions is conducted every five years.

The Government is yet to announce who will conduct the next review or its terms of reference.

Play Video. Duration: 7 minutes 26 seconds
The role of business lobbyists in political election campaigns is raising questions for integrity watchers.

Powerbroker set up lobbying firm set up after leaving role in Premier’s office

While not unique to Queensland or the Labor Party, the practice of lobbyists being embedded inside campaign teams was highlighted by last month’s state election.

Evan Moorhead, 42, is a former state MP and Queensland Labor Party boss.

He left a senior role in Ms Palaszczuk’s office last May and then almost immediately established lobbying firm Anacta Strategies.

Anacta Strategies has been paid to advise the ALP since the second half of 2019. It was involved in activities including advertising, polling and focus-group research during the campaign.

Evan Moorhead.
After years in politics, Evan Moorhead now runs lobbying firm Anacta Strategies.(Queensland Parliament)

“If you are a premier looking to hang on to your gig, you probably want to grab him as quickly as you can; he’s very good,” said strategist Toby Ralph, who worked inside John Howard’s election campaigns.

“People within the Labor Party machine know he’s good at what he does and he commands respect, so he would have been deeply influential.”

Cameron Milner, director of Next Level Strategic Services, is a former Queensland Labor boss who worked as then-opposition leader Bill Shorten’s top adviser.

Mr Milner’s firm represents companies including energy giant Shell, packaging manufacturer Visy and drinks company Lion.

Anacta Strategies has been hired by 37 organisations during its short history, including Carlton & United Breweries, mining company Glencore, and train manufacturer Downer.

Potential conflicts of interest ‘quite disturbing’ to integrity watchers

It is within the rules but there are calls for the rules to change.

The Centre for Public Integrity’s Joo-Cheong Tham says the practice was “quite disturbing because of the acute conflicts of interest it gives rise to”.

“Those conflicts arise from two sources. One comes from the close relationships that are developed between the lobbyist-campaigner and elected officials, particularly ministers and their staff,” Professor Tham said.

“The second source is really the possible confidential information the lobbyist-campaigner might have in relation to the elected official.”

ALP strategist Cameron Milner.
Cameron Milner advised Bill Shorten before returning to Next Level Strategic Services.(Supplied)

Grattan Institute researcher Kate Griffiths, who monitors political integrity issues, said lobbyists could have access to privileged information during campaigns which created issues around the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“I just don’t think you can ask the public to believe that when wearing two hats you’re going to be able to hold some kind of firewall between those two roles and you’re going to be able to keep privileged information separate,” she said.

“Clearly that information could be useful to you in both those roles.”

Ms Griffiths said it was up to political parties to act and suggested a cooling-off period of up to two years for people who held senior roles in campaigns.

‘Clear separation’ between ALP work and lobbying, Moorhead says

Mr Moorhead told 7.30 there was “a clear separation” between his company’s lobbying activities and its work for ALP head office.

“Our campaign activities do not involve any participation in policy development,” he said.

“We have always rigorously complied with the requirements of the Queensland Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.”

A Queensland Government spokesman said: “Lobbyists are required to follow the code at all times and ensure appropriate disclosures are made.”

Ms Palaszczuk has previously defended Mr Moorhead’s campaign work.

There is no suggestion Mr Moorhead or Mr Milner have broken the current rules or code of conduct.

Anacta Strategies representatives met Premier’s staff almost weekly

Unlike most states, Queensland requires lobbyists to publicly disclose meetings with ministers and staff.

An analysis of meetings records by 7.30 has revealed the unrivalled access given to Anacta Strategies by the Palaszczuk Government.

Between taking on its first client in July 2019 and early November this year, Anacta Strategies met with staff working in the Premier’s office more than any other lobbyist.

Anacta representatives on average met weekly with the staff of Annastacia Palaszczuk’s frontbenchers — more than twice as often as any other lobbying firm.

Mr Milner’s Next Level Strategic Services secured the second-highest number of meetings with ministers’ staff.

Labor-aligned firm Hawker Britton secured the most meetings with ministers and assistant ministers, and secured one of two meetings involving the Premier herself.

“[The risk is] it becomes skewed by those who are in the room and able to have those conversations, who have the resources to buy those connections to get in the room in the first place, over those who just don’t have that level of access, just don’t have those resources.”

Advertising and business strategist Toby Ralph disagreed there was any real benefit.

“It might give them a little preferential access, but it’s marginal,” he said.

“Does it help change policy for businesses they represent? No, absolutely not.”

Fifteen lobbying firms were active during the period.

Anacta, Next Level and Hawker Britton secured about three-quarters of all lobbyist meetings with frontbenchers and their staff.

Anti-coal group decries ‘shocking imbalance in information’

A large open-cut coal mine on a sunny day.
New Hope wants to expand its New Acland coal mine in southern Queensland.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Mr Moorhead’s Anacta Strategies signed up mining company New Hope as its first client in July 2019 — two months after Mr Moorhead left the Premier’s office.

The resources company wants to expand its New Acland mine near Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, in the face of vocal community opposition.

Anacta held six meetings in a single month last year with the Premier’s chief of staff and the chief of staff of then-state development minister, Cameron Dick.

A prominent group opposing the mine, the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, told 7.30 it had only secured six formal meetings in more than three years with frontbenchers or their staff.

“It’s only hearing one side of the story when the story represented by the people who live in that area is so much more compelling.”

Farmer David Vonhoff pats his red heeler dog, who is sitting on the back of a quad bike.
Farmer David Vonhoff is against the proposed expansion of the coal mine.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Local farmer David Vonhoff, 65, a member of the alliance, said prime agricultural land would be “stuffed up” and the mine would contribute to climate change.

“For generations into the future, my grandkids when they get to my age, how are they going to be dealing with the climate? This mine is part of that equation.”

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