14/12/2011 - 11:15

Constable silent on policing lobbyists

14/12/2011 - 11:15

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Liz Constable once promoted views on lobbyists different to those planned in the government’s new Bill.

Liz Constable once promoted views on lobbyists different to those planned in the government’s new Bill. 

THE primary thrust of last week’s State Scene column was that the Barnett government’s so-called Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill brazenly paves the way for lobbying to be transformed into an even-more secretive activity than presently practised.

Regrettably, it also discourages the development of an independent, professionally based lobbying sector.

Western Australia currently has 105 independent lobbying companies and/or individuals, as shown on the Alan Carpenter-created register of lobbyists, with all proprietors, and crucially all their clients, named for easy viewing.

A quick read shows most have no clients or just one, while several have between five and 10.

But the company with the biggest client list (67) is GRA Everingham, headed by former WA Liberal Party director Paul Everingham and employing two former Liberal leaders’ staffers (one a former Barnett staffer).

Clearly, although there’s still lobbying work out there to be won it seems to be a case of many being called but only very few being chosen.

Who, or what, is responsible for this enormous client imbalance or disparity, where just one company so dominates WA’s tiny and highly secretive lobbying sector?

Perhaps having links with the Liberal side of politics, via a senior party job, or having worked for a senior Liberal MP is the required catalyst for acquiring contracts in what’s still a relatively young service sector.

Nor could anyone claim GRA Everingham hides its business.

Unlike most lobbyists it has a comprehensive website displaying its sizeable lobbying team, which, in addition to Mr Everingham, includes, as company chairman, former Hawke-Keating minister John Dawkins.

And there are some who worked either for the Gallop government, with Carmen Lawrence, Stephen Smith, Colin Barnett, or Jim McGinty.

GRA Everingham offers a range of services “tailored to meet the objectives of each client and project”.

These include: political and policy ‘audits’; policy, legislative and regulatory advice; intelligence gathering; and general government liaison.

“GRA Everingham has extensive government and corporate networks across WA and the nation more broadly,” the site says.

Not everyone, however, is as well endowed with contacts across both sides of the political spectrum.

And the way the Barnett Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill is drafted it is unlikely any more such ventures will emerge.

According to one contact, the reason is that the government isn’t interested in the growth of a professional, privately based independent lobbying sector. 

Evidence for this is found in Mr Barnett’s second reading speech notes.

“The transparency imperatives underpinning the Bill do not require all types of interest groups, non-profit organisations, in-house lawyers, or professionals such as architects or engineers to be regulated,” he said.

Clearly someone in government (a lawyer, perhaps several) has a very soft spot for Perth’s legal fraternity, meaning lawyers can go about lobbying for clients and bypass the Bill’s meaningless registration requirements as applied to independent lobbyists.

There will, consequently, be fewer opportunities for those wishing to become career lobbyists.

All corporations need to do is utilise lawyers or employ someone using any title other than ‘lobbyist’.

The same applies to architects, engineers and others who can also embrace the corporate umbrella.

Among other things, this means the construction industry and whatever it does by way of land allocation, subdivisions, and the like, won’t fall under the same administering that smaller lobbyists encounter.

A likely outcome of this unfair favoured treatment of certain occupations and corporations is that the lobbying sector will remain remunerative primarily for those with close political and party links.

There may be an exception somewhere along the line, but that seems unlikely.

An unknown number of lobbyists working inside corporate entities, rather than being self-employed, is what the future appears to hold.

This, of course, is tragic, since the Liberal Party was based upon support and backing for small to medium-sized businesses, not exclusively the corporate world.

Party founder Robert Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’ weren’t the big, corporate end of town, but rather the small, the self-employed, the non-unionised battlers.

Like so much within today’s Liberal Party, such commitment has vanished.

But favouring the big over the small is unlikely to be the most incongruous, perhaps even embarrassing, aspect of the Integrity (Lobbyists’) Bill.

What only a few may realise is that one long-time member of the Barnett cabinet has held views diametrically opposed to what the Bill plans.

The crucial ingredient of that now-minister’s belief was that WA’s lobbying industry must first and foremost be subjected to full disclosure requirements, complete transparency, which the Barnett Integrity Bill has failed to include.

That person is long-time Churchlands MLA, Independent Liberal Liz Constable, who, after the 2008 election, became education minister.

In 2003, Dr Constable surprised many in parliament by tabling a private members bill, The Lobbying Disclosure and Accountability Bill, which set about requiring all “lobbyists to lodge monthly returns with the parliamentary commissioner (ombudsman) set out details of their lobbying activities in the preceding month”.

In other words, she sought to ensure implementation of the type of full-disclosure of all lobbying activities prevailing across the US, where clandestine lobbying is forbidden and stiff fines apply to transgressors.

However, because Dr Constable was then an Independent, her pioneering full-disclosure bill, after tabling, was ignored by major parties and wasn’t debated.

It thus automatically expired when the 2005 election was called.

But Dr Constable wouldn’t surrender.

She re-drafted her pioneering bill and tabled an amended version for next parliament, amid the rumpus over the Smiths Beach Affair during which Brian Burke was subpoenaed by the Corruption and Crime Commission.

Among other things, Dr Constable’s groundbreaking pieces of legislation required all (corporate and independent) working lobbyists to: “lodge quarterly returns with the parliamentary commissioner [ombudsman] setting out details of relations to their lobbying activity in the preceding quarter.”

Also noteworthy is the fact that the public official she envisaged administering her full disclosure of lobbying was the ombudsman, not public sector commissioner, whom the Barnett Bill has chosen to install.

The former answers to parliament, so to all MPs; not only a government, perhaps just a premier, as the latter does.

I’ve discussed both her bills with several experts on lobbying and governance accountability, including especially Edith Cowan University Professor Quentin Beresford, author of The Godfather: The Life of Brian Burke.

All agreed the Constable bills were groundbreaking, indeed, world class, pieces of legislation that unambiguously outlawed secrecy in lobbying and its administration, whereas the Barnett Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill sanctions and institutionalises secrecy and all that this implies.

Next year, this column intends to revisit several of the differences between what Dr Constable, as an Independent, wished to institute in 2003 and 2007, and which it appears she is no longer pursuing.

It will be interesting to see how, as an Independent who campaigned for this important point of principle, Dr Constable will vote as a minister, having assured State Scene in February that she hadn’t changed her mind.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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