04/11/2010 - 00:00

Barnett has an each-way bet on lobbyists

04/11/2010 - 00:00

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The state government has failed to honour a key election promise made in 2008.

AS Colin Barnett nears the halfway mark of this term as premier, some are wondering why he’s dragging his feet on a promise to institute full disclosure of lobbying activities.

For those who haven’t read the Liberal Party’s 2008 election commitment to do that, here’s the preamble and the key points.

Lobbying Labor-style was most definitely a behind-closed-doors activity, and that’s how things continue to this day, despite the 2008 Liberal election promise.

“In 2008, Brian Burke is still a powerbroker and a paid lobbyist, who has been demonstrated by the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) to use his Labor contacts to win favours for his clients,” the Liberal document says.

“Former premier Geoff Gallop banned Labor ministers from dealing with Brian Burke, but in 2006, Alan Carpenter arrogantly lifted that ban and has already lost five ministers as the spread of Brian Burke’s influence is uncovered by the CCC.

“Even with the ban on Burke reinstated, the CCC has shown that the links go deep into the ALP.

The solemn undertaking by the Barnett-led Liberals to institute full disclosure follows, something we’re still waiting to see 26 months after the election.

“In order to put an end to questioning about relationships between government and lobbyists, the creation of legislation addressing the public registration of lobbyists is needed,” the document reads.

“This will ensure the people of Western Australia will have a transparent, clear understanding of how their government is conducting its business.

“A Liberal government will: Introduce legislation to create a public register for lobbyists and require regular reporting of lobbying activities.”

On the pivotal question of instituting “regular reporting of lobbying activities”, that is, disclosure clauses, the following is stated.

“Recognising that lobbying is a legitimate part of the political process and their close engagements with government ministers and officials on behalf of clients, the Liberal Party believes that consultants should be registered and their activities monitored and reported on regular basis.

“In government, we will move quickly to legislate to register and monitor the activities of consultant lobbyists.

“The register will be published on the internet, kept up-to-date and will include details of all lobbyists, their clients and their activities.”

Because we’re now 26 months on and still without legislation monitoring “the activities of consultant lobbyists”, Mr Barnett seems to have struck a snag.

What could that snag be?

Interestingly, he recently attempted to explain his procrastination because Labor, which received such a bollocking over lobbying during the Gallop-Carpenter years, managed to extract excuses from him.

On June 1 2010, when Mr Barnett fronted an estimates committee he was quizzed by Labor leader Eric Ripper and frontbencher Mark McGowan, who clearly hadn’t forgotten the bollocking they’d been subjected to by the Liberals.

Here’s that revealing exchange.

McGowan: ‘The Liberal-National government committed to, within 100 days of coming to office, having lobbyist legislation drafted and in front of parliament. It has now been 500 or 600 days since the Liberal-National government came to office but there is no lobbyist legislation in view. When will the government introduce such legislation into parliament?’

Barnett: ‘Yes, we did not do that. I think it was an ill-thought-out proposal during an election campaign to suggest that that could be drafted. Work is progressing on it.’

McGowan: ‘Was it not gospel?’

Barnett: ‘No; it was not.’

McGowan: ‘It was written down, though.’

Barnett: ‘It was written down, so it is a broken promise – I concede that – but not a realistic promise. Work is progressing on that. Mr Robert Cock, who is acting as special counsel, is dealing with that and also dealing with some proposed changes to the Corruption and Crime Commission legislation and some other matters.

‘I will not commit to it, but I hope that we can introduce some legislation towards the end of this year. The lobbyist issue has provoked quite a debate; my own view is that we should be getting more down the path of accreditation as a way of approaching that issue. I do not like the term lobbyist either; I think it is a demeaning term for people who make representation to government.

Ripper: ‘What about government representation facilitator?’

Barnett: ‘I do not know. The word lobbyist, I think, is tainted and is unreasonably applied to people who legitimately and quite properly help groups prepare presentations and put points of view to government.’

McGowan: ‘Is the legislation being currently drafted? Has a submission seeking drafting gone to cabinet?’

Barnett: Some of that work has been done under the Public Sector Commissioner rather than in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. That is where Robert Cock is working and he is working on it. Obviously, the Department of the Premier and Cabinet will be involved and obviously I will be involved, as will the attorney-general.’

So, in June, Messrs Ripper and McGowan had Mr Barnett:

• admitting to breaking his promise (Why dishonour it?);

• claiming it was ‘not a realistic promise’. (What’s so unrealistic about openness?);

• claiming he now believed the Liberals ‘should be getting more down the path of accreditation as a way of approaching’ lobbying. (Does that mean disclosure of lobbyists’ activities will never be instituted? If yes, why, when it was seen as so necessary while Labor held power?); and

• revealing he’d decided, now that he’s in power, that the word lobbyists ‘is tainted and is unreasonably applied to people who legitimately and quite properly help groups prepare presentations and put points of view to government’. (Perhaps he should be reminded that Mr Burke was ‘assisting’ clients to ‘prepare presentations’ and aiding them ‘to put points of view to government?’ So why the back-flip?).

All these Barnett hair-splitting qualifications and Orwellian-style moves at redefining words and practices are made more ominous when recalling that one of his senior ministers, Liz Constable, as an Independent Liberal, prepared and tabled a Lobbying Disclosure and Accountability Bill, in 2003 and in 2007.

She’d wisely researched path-finding Canadian provincial and American state lobbying disclosure acts as models for her bills.

Although, neither gained Labor or Liberal party room backing, Dr Constable pinpointed the key issue: ‘The lobbying equation is simple: money of the clients of lobbyists equals access to and influence with elected representatives and public officers.

‘Although professional lobbying has become entrenched in our system, it lacks transparency and has the enormous capacity for improper influence on public officials and for corruption and improper behaviour.’

That’s some of the reasons why clandestine lobbying must also be outlawed in WA. There are others.

Crucially her bills set regular reporting of lobbying activities in stone, so disclosure by lobbyists, something the Liberals backed on the eve of the last election but have now retreated from, is therefore instituted.

Why is Mr Barnett dragging his feet? Why sideline Dr Constable’s bills in favour of Mr Cock to re-do, maybe even de-gut, her two world-class efforts?

Surely not because today’s most active lobbyists have intimate Liberal Party links, and so can now have the same privileged access the Liberals alleged Mr Burke had.

Isn’t that having two-bob each way?

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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