Accountability worth lobbying for

INCREASING numbers of State MPs are retiring from Parliament and launching careers as well-paid lobbyists, in the process drawing incomes over and above their handsome six-figure parliamentary pensions.

Who these new-age lobbyists work for, under what terms, who they meet in government, and precisely what they do, remain mysteries.

Only they and the companies, organisations or groups they are quietly lobbying for know their modus operandi.

They are, therefore, secretly influencing legislation that affects all Western Australians. But voters get no insight into precisely what they and their clients are up to.

For that reason it’s time all lobbyists were required to be registered and their activities laid open to voters and, especially, the press.

Until such disclosure is adopted, reading and listening to our media on politics will remain largely an enjoyable waste of time.

Lobbying is defined as influencing or attempting to influence executive (ministerial) or legislative (MPs) action through oral or written communication.

In most cases the immediate targets are ministers or senior influential MPs. But it can include quietly dealing with senior public servants and ministerial staffers.

We don’t know if the latter two groups are being approached by WA’s new-age lobbyists because next to nothing is known about the budding, but growing and prospering, sector.

Everyone, including those being lobbied, has been extremely hush-hush about it.

It’s worth remembering, in this regard, the words of upstate blue-blood New Yorker, Franklin D Roosevelt, one of America’s shrewdest behind-closed-doors operators: “Nothing just happens in politics. If something happens you can be sure it was planned that way”.

Business in WA should think hard about FDR’s perspicacious words.

Business should also begin openly lobbying State parliamentarians for disclosure requirements with regard to lobbying.

This may prove difficult, because present MPs may see a new career awaiting them.

The reason most in business, in particular, have a vested interest in disclosure is because too often those with lots of money hire lobbyists (they don’t come cheap I’m assured) to get the jump on other businesses.

The insidious side effect of lobbying is that it can mean MPs backing programs, policies, and causes not necessarily in the best interests of their constituents, who remain in the dark.

I know of one ex-MP currently lobbying for a cause that, if successful, would significantly boost the cost of production for all WA businesses.

I learned of his activities quite by accident last year, after I’d written about what his new employer was up to.

He bailed me up at a lunch to query what I’d written.

I said: “Well, if I’m wrong why didn’t they write a letter to WA Business News?”

“Na,” he said. “I recommended against that.”

But he and his paymasters are deliberately going about their task via the back door.

Now, it should be said there’s nothing new about lobbying. It’s about as old as several of the oldest professions.

Writing in one of the few Australian books on this issue, but about Canberra lobbyists, and titled, No is not an Answer, Professor Clem Lloyd’s introduction reveals this well.

“The Old and New Testaments are studded with instances of pressure groups, lobbyists, professional advocates, and the petitioning of potentates,” he writes.

“The courts of European monarchs such as Henry VIII and Louis XIV were designed at least partly to receive the petitioning, importunity and beseeching of the government. And to this day ‘friends at court’ remain a fundamental assett of the lobbyists in attracting clients.”

Such cases, however, seem to have been overshadowed or forgotten, probably because of the emergence of the lobbying craft in the United States before and since the robber baron era, when it acquired a bad name.

Lobbying, however, shouldn’t be viewed as sinister in itself. And it certainly shouldn’t be outlawed, as happened in one American State.

Far from it. It should be encouraged, as long as it’s not concealed, without the public knowing or having the chance to know what’s going on within their polity.

And the only way of lifting the veil on lobbying is registration, something that exists in the United States – Washington DC – as well as in most of the 50 States.

All WA lobbyists should register annually. Anyone lobbying and not registered at an ‘office of lobbying’ should be denied access to ministers and their staffers, and legislators.

Every six months all lobbyists should submit detailed descriptions of what clients they worked for, what they were paid, and who they had lobbied.

Those hiring lobbyists should submit similar returns listing the same details.

All ministers, MPs, senior policy public servants and ministerial staffers should submit to the office monthly returns naming who had lobbied them and what was discussed.

All these reports should be open to the public, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

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