The Federal lobbying code is toothless and it has failed

Nov 15, 2023
Independent Member for Kooyong Monique Ryan at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, November 13, 2023. Image: AAP /Mick Tsikas

Commercial lobbying is a multibillion dollar industry in Australia. A code of conduct which allows our Defence Minister to discuss defence business with a global contracting firm in cabinet, then take a job with that firm nine days after leaving politics, is a code which is corrosive of public trust in democracy.

Edited transcript of a speech to Parliament by Dr Monique Ryan MP on the tabling of the Lobbying (Improving Government Honesty and Trust) Bill 2023, November 13, 2023.

Mr Speaker, lobbying activities are communications with government representatives to influence government decision-making. We know that in a democracy the right of bodies to make representations to government – to have access to and an impact on policy making – is fundamental to the proper conduct of public life and the development of sound policy. However, lobbying leads to corruption if it prompts decision making which is not merit-based, honest and transparent.

The existing Federal lobbying Code of Conduct is an administrative instrument aimed at ensuring that contact between lobbyists and government representatives is conducted in accordance with public expectations of transparency, integrity, and honesty. It is toothless and it has failed. It’s too limited, it does not engender transparency, and it’s unenforced.

Commercial lobbying is a multibillion dollar industry in Australia. The current public register of lobbyists applies only to third party lobbyists – paid professionals engaged by clients to influence public officials on their behalf. It does not include “in house” lobbyists -those employed within an entity purely to undertake that role. So, it applies to only 20% of the lobbyists roaming our corridors, knocking on our doors, seeking to influence our decisions. The other 80% ..? who knows. The register, as it stands, doesn’t include company executives, NGOs, not-for-profits, charities, think tanks, research centres, religious organisations, trade unions and other bodies. On 5 November 2023 the register included 703 third party lobbyists; 40% were former politicians, ministerial advisers or senior public servants.

There are three main reasons for regulating lobbying. The first is to prevent corrupt behaviour by lobbyists and public officials- cash for access, cash for comment, cash for approvals. The second is to ensure fairness in decision making by stopping secret lobbying by vested interests. The third is to ensure that government decisions are merit-based.

Enforcement of lobbying codes in this country has been dismal. In 2018 the Auditor General found that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had not suspended registration of a single lobbyist since 2013, despite at least 11 possible breaches of the code of conduct in that time. The current code meets only one of the 10 principles for transparency and integrity in lobbying set down by the global Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Suggestions that the Code be better enforced have been actively rebuffed by successive governments. We need an independent regulator administering a strong legislative scheme – not a complacent and conflicted government waving an administrative framework with the cohesion and effectiveness of a wet tissue.

The Bill I’m presenting today was developed with the generous support of a number of transparency organisations- bodies who I think will be overjoyed to enter our new Federal lobbying register. We’re behind the United Kingdom, Canada, and the US- they’ve already legislated strong integrity frameworks, the power of which includes their scope; post-employment restrictions; penalties; independence of the administrative entity; and transparency of monitoring and public reporting. All are addressed in this Bill. The Bill includes provision for a new publicly-accessible online lobbyist register that will include in-house as well as third party lobbyists, and a requirement for lobbyists to lodge online quarterly returns reporting who they’ve met with, for how long, where, and why. Ministers will publish their diaries online too, so we can cross-compare and verify reporting. The Bill mandates a longer post-employment prohibition such that Ministers and senior staff are banned from working as lobbyists for three years after they leave Parliament. It legislates a register of senior government appointments – so we know who is working where and when -during and after their time in this place. It regulates enforceability; there will be fines and bans for lobbyists who are in breach of the bill. Rather than a self-regulated code bedevilled by intrinsic and systemic conflict of interest, the code will be independently enforced by the independent Integrity Commission.

Speaker, we want – WE NEED- to hold public officials to a high standard of integrity. When they leave public office, officials shouldn’t be able to use insider knowledge for personal gain or the commercial benefit of their new employer- and they shouldn’t be making decisions prior to leaving office which might advance their employer-to-be. And yet we have seen time and time again the revolving door- the golden escalator- between this house and industry, with Ministers and public servants accepting lucrative private sector jobs with unseemly haste immediately on leaving Parliament. A code of conduct which allows our Defence Minister to discuss defence business with a global contracting firm in cabinet, then take a job with that firm nine days after leaving politics, is a code which is corrosive of public trust in democracy. A code which allows a Foreign Minister to award more than $500m in contracts to a private organisation, then accept a job with that contractor less than 12 months after leaving politics- is corrosive of public trust in democracy. A code which allows the Prime Minister discretion over its own enforcement is corrosive of public trust in democracy.

Speaker, sunlight is the best medicine. It’s time to shine a light in the halls of this place – to illuminate the workings of the Light on the Hill. We need to know who has the ears of our politicians, and we need to stop the revolving door. Australians deserve to be able to trust their government. They want this Bill debated by their representatives, and they want this law passed by this government. This Bill is an important contribution to the restoration of integrity and transparency to this place. I commend it to the House.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

Best of 2022: The major parties refuse to tackle the lobbying scourge. Can the Teals and the Greens save the day?

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