26/03/2008 - 22:00

Connecting to Labor's network

26/03/2008 - 22:00

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The wife of Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff, David Epstein, is to run the Canberra office of major lobbying concern, Government Relations Australia (GRA), which also operates in Western Australia.

Connecting to Labor's network

The wife of Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff, David Epstein, is to run the Canberra office of major lobbying concern, Government Relations Australia (GRA), which also operates in Western Australia.

That’s surprising in light of the WA government’s gross maladministration of the state’s lobbying sector, and the fact that these self-inflicted pains led to Mr Rudd being publicly embarrassed.

One of GRA’s directors is John Dawkins, who was finance minister in the Hawke government and treasurer under Paul Keating.

He’s now running GRA’s Adelaide office.

Another is Scott Gartrell, cousin of the Labor Party’s national secretary, Tim Gartrell.

Scott Gartrell is billed on GRA’s website as working with clients dealing with the NSW, federal and Queensland Labor governments.

Another director is Christian Zahra, federal Labor MP for the seat of McMillan (1998-2004) who was parliamentary secretary to Labor’s infrastructure, transport and regional development and communications shadow ministers.

He’s based in GRA’s Melbourne office.

Like her husband, Mrs Epstein, aka Sandra Eccles, has an excellent Labor governmental pedigree.

According to GRA’s website: “She was senior adviser to federal industry minister, [Senator] John Button, in 1986 to 1988, then policy consultant in 1990 to 1991.

“From late 1982 to mid-1986, she was economic adviser to the South Australian premier, John Bannon.

“Sandra headed the Ministerial and International Division of the federal Industry Department from late 1991 to mid-1996.

“During the late 1980s, Sandra was deputy head of the SA Department of State Development and while there focused on investment attraction and industry development.” But to scramble the eggs somewhat, another GRA director is Michael Yabsley, a minister in the NSW Liberal government of Nick Greiner.

Another interesting development on the WA Labor/lobbyist front is that former Perth journalist, Karen Brown, now billed as a principal consultant with Halden Burns Pty Ltd, is being tipped by in-the-know pundits as likely to gain preselection for a state Labor seat.

The Halden in Halden Burns, is, of course, onetime Labor MP, John Halden, a longtime ally of attorneygeneral and left factional chief, Jim McGinty.

But she’s not the only local lobbyist facing the prospect of elevation from frontline lobbying to politician status.

Roger Cook, general manager of lobbyist company, CPR, who also has close links to Mr McGinty via Labor’s left faction, is similarly tipped by in-the-know pundits.

CPR has employed at least two former WA Labor government ministerial staffers, including former McGinty press secretary, Simon Dowding, brother of a former Labor premier.

What’s the relevance of all this? The commanding heights of WA’s relatively new and remunerative lobbying sector are most certainly dominated by former Labor MPs and ministerial staffers meaning solid links – the insider touch – to wall-to-wall Labor is deemed to be most helpful.

For a time, lobbying sector observers contended what was happening was that lobbying was a career retired Labor MPs would use to top up their superannuation.

However, Ms Eccles’ emergence, and the possible emergence as MPs of Ms Brown and Mr Cook, suggests this needs to be reconsidered.

It may well be that spouses of Labor MPs and staffers may come to dominate the lobbying scene, with some using this as a stepping stone into parliaments.

In other words, things may move the other way – from lobbying into parliament, and vice-versa.

Lobbying seems set to increasingly become if not the first, then certainly the second stepping stone towards political careers with Labor.

Recently, State Scene gave a talk on lobbying WA-style to an academic group, and one of those present suggested it was likely we’re seeing the emergence of a new career path for Laborite hopefuls.

Since the 1970s, a now fairly well-worn path for Labor hopefuls (Mr McGinty for instance) was to get a position in a university or campus student union, followed by one in a trade union, from where one could plot and plan pre-selection for a safe parliamentary seat.

Mr McGinty was a campus student union president, after which he became boss of the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union, from where he consolidated his leftist faction and promoted a range of people – many of them women – into parliament.

When he was ready to follow, they helped elevate him to the safe Labor seat of Fremantle.

No-one on Labor’s side from the 1970s to 1990s imagined there could ever be another sure way of fast tracking oneself into parliament than the campus-union path.

But here we are, years later, and it seems another Laborite career path is set to take shape as a way towards ministerial rank.

It seems an Australia-wide Labororiented lobbyists’ network is falling into place.

More pertinent than all these likely new twists and turns within Labor ranks is the fact that the WA government’s guidelines allow lobbying in WA to remain a clandestine activity.

Why then all the whinging last year about Brian Burke and Julian Grill when nothing has changed? Business and Labor lobbyists are still getting into bed together, with the public locked out from discovering what they’re up to.

No requirement exists in WA for full disclosure by lobbyists on whose behalf they’re lobbying, what’s discussed, and what’s being paid; all essential items for proper disclosure to prevail In May 2002 State Scene wrote : “All WA lobbyists should register annually.

“Anyone lobbying and not registered at an ‘office of lobbying’ should be denied access 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.” Those recommendations were drawn from some of the best regulated lobbying requirements in several American states.

In other words they’re tested requirements, ensuring lobbying is administered with open access to details so the public can know who’s pulling strings behind the curtains.

Independent Liberal, Liz Constable, has presented two bills, Lobbying Disclosure and Accountability Bills, 2003 and 2007, which move in the direction suggested by State Scene in May 2002.

Interestingly, the Greens are also working towards having lobbyists disclosing their activities.

But that’s precisely what WA’s so-called ‘lobbyists’ register’, which is without disclosure requirements, fails to offer.

The absence of the disclosure of lobbyists’ activities means the register is useless window dressing.

One of America’s shrewdest behind-closed-doors operators, Franklin D Roosevelt, said: “Nothing just happens in politics.

If something happens you can be sure it was planned that way.” It would take considerable talking by Mr McGinty before State Scene accepted that his failure to include disclosure was an oversight.

Furthermore, WA’s sleepy Liberal opposition should begin pressing him on this crucial point to determine if he deliberately excluded full disclosure of lobbyists’ activities so mates and factional pals could continue operating in the shadows.

For too long the Liberals have been acting like Labor’s auxiliaries on this, rather than as reform-minded people’s representatives.

If they keep that up they may as well merge with the McGintycontrolled Labor Party in name as well as in fact.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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