Lobbying: British ex-PM shows the way, Australia pretends there is no problemMay 17, 2021
Don’t you pity David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain, who led the charge (from the Opposition leadership) against the evils of lobbying, but discovered, after he ceased to be PM, that he could profit greatly from his former office by becoming a lobbyist?
We don’t know exactly how much he was paid – he was coy about that – but estimates ranged from ‘greater than his salary as PM’ to millions. Of pounds, that is.
That sort of thing doesn’t happen in Australia. Not because our politicians are necessarily more upright and true to their expressed convictions than the unfortunate Mr Cameron. Rather it is because those in office, or anticipating that one day they might be, are far more circumspect about denouncing lobbyists and trying to curtail their influence on government and their sometimes damaging influence on the body politic.
Mr Cameron, back in 2010, gave a formal, keynote speech a few weeks before the election that year setting out how ‘broken politics’ needed to be fixed. And one of the biggest problems that he identified was lobbying, what he called ‘the next biggest scandal waiting to happen’, an issue, he said, that ‘has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government and money.’
He said it was a two billion pound industry, with a huge presence in parliament, much of the time happening covertly.
‘We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence. This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests – not to mention government contracts – worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.
‘I believe that corporate secret lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics… We can’t go on like this.’
Terrific. But his solution? Former ministers should not be allowed to lobby government for at least two years, rather than one – the rule at that stage. And the rules concerning lobbying should be more than guidance, they should be enforceable by taking away some of the pensions of former ministers.
None of that happened once Cameron became Prime Minister, not least because too many people in government might become lobbyists and have too much to lose. But in any event, this was such a minuscule step towards making lobbying accountable and politics more acceptable.
A two-year cooling-off period? No problem. it seems Mr Cameron was able to operate extremely profitably (though perhaps not effectively) many, many years after he had ceased to be Prime Minister.
In Australia, the limitations on former Ministers becoming lobbyists range from 18 months to 2 years after they cease to hold office, but they are a nonsense and easily (and regularly) avoided in any event.
It is perfectly legal here for an ex-Prime Minister or former Minister to go to work for a large corporation doing business with the government in an area such as defence, or border control or health or aged care and to call current ministers or senior public servants to push the interests of their employer.
In fact, it is not only legal, the former PM/minister and their company don’t even have to register as lobbyists, or follow any of the lobbying protocols set down by Australian governments. The trick is, they lobby on their own behalf, and don’t employ third-party lobbyists to lobby for them.
For example, once they clear out of their ministerial suites they can get straight into trying to advance the interests of their new boss (or, perhaps, fellow directors). No waiting time, or gardening leave between wielding ministerial power and trying to influence how those who have replaced them, or used to serve under them, exercise their powers.
Australia’s laws (in just a few states), regulations or mere codes of conduct, are designed to oversee just a small proportion of the lobbying that actually happens – about one fifth of all lobbying, judging by what happens in Canada, which tries to cover all types of lobbying.
In particular, Australia excludes from those it regulates companies which lobby on their own behalf, and their employees. So, for example, the CEOs and the employees and direct consultants of the big banks, of Qantas and the mining companies don’t have their lobbying activities regulated in any way at all. Its possible (it actually happens) for a company selling armaments to the defence forces to employ former ministers within days of them quitting their posts, because their activities in trying to advance the commercial interests of their new corporate employer are not ‘lobbying’ as defined by the government.
Nor are the activities of industry organisations such as those representing pharmaceutical companies, or doctors, or finance companies, or trade unionists, caught up within the lobbying codes.
If you were a cynic you would no doubt wonder whether the regulatory system is designed to fail – or, worse, designed to fool the public into thinking that the government is actually concerned to regulate the activities of lobbyists.
What is interesting is that it is extremely rare (if it has ever happened) to find an Australian politician in government or Opposition (with a chance of being elected to government) denouncing the evils of lobbying and promising to impose controls that would improve the democratic processes and government. Mr Cameron’s words weren’t echoed by any leading politicians here. As for his deeds?