24/08/2011 - 10:26

Lobbyists can still slip the net

24/08/2011 - 10:26

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The Barnett government is about 900 days late with the release of its ‘lobbyists’ register’, but it’s sure to ruffle a few feathers.

THE Liberal-Nationals government promised in 2008 that it would provide a ‘proper register’ for lobbyists within 100 days of taking office, claiming that the process established under Labor was inadequate. 

When the long-overdue measures emerge in the next few weeks they will have taken more than 1,000 days to prepare; and plenty of noses are likely to be out of joint.

The new strategy will upset plenty of politicians, and public servants might be tempted to slip quickly into the lobbying sector when they move out of their current calling, armed with good intelligence gathered while on the inside. But some others who engage in lobbying will still be able to escape the net, thanks to technicalities. 

Alan Carpenter’s Labor government established a register for lobbyists in 2007 after he had been burned by his decision to lift Geoff Gallop’s ban on ministers dealing with former Labor luminaries-turned-lobbyists par excellence, Brian Burke and Julian Grill.

His about-face followed revelations in the Corruption and Crime Commission of imaginative measures employed by the Burke-Grill team in an attempt to get favourable government decisions for projects initiated by their clients. The standout was Mr Burke’s strategy for development-oriented candidates to be elected to the Busselton council, who he thought might then be partial to a major tourist project planned for Smiths Beach.   

The strategy was pure Burke. While it raised many eyebrows, Mr Burke insisted no laws had been broken. But it, and other instances, prompted Mr Carpenter to reinstate the Burke-Grill ban and introduce a lobbyists’ register to achieve greater transparency in the dealings between politicians, public servants, and lobbyists.

Colin Barnett has long insisted the Labor register lacks teeth, hence his promise to legislate for a proper register of political lobbyists.

It is understood that his measures will essentially enshrine in legislation what already exists by way of regulation.

An important change, though, will be provision for a cooling-off period of 12 months. That means ex-MPs and public servants will have to sit on their heels for one year before they can use the ‘intelligence’ acquired in government for the benefit of clients who hire them for their expertise and to open doors.

If such laws had been introduced within 100 days of the change of government, as promised, Mr Carpenter would have been prevented from moving so promptly to his current corporate role at Wesfarmers. Also, Mr Barnett’s former chief-of-staff, Deidre Willmott, would have been forced to delay joining Andrew Forrest at FMG.

There are plenty of former politicians on the existing register not affected by the measure. They include former Liberal MPs Bill Hassell, Paul Omodei, Jim Clarko and Bernie Masters, and ex-Labor MPs such as Megan Anwyl, John Halden and Ron Edwards.

In-house lobbyists will not be required to register – on the basis that it’s obvious who they represent – and part-time employees, lawyers and accountants will continue to be exempt, even though close observers say some clearly engage in greasing the wheels for clients without having to declare their hand.

The rationale for part-time employees being excluded is that they are not considered to be ‘consulting’ lobbyists. 

But some part-timers actually work close to full-time, thanks to arrangements with three or four clients, whom they will not be required to name. So they will still fly under the radar.

Registered lobbyists also believe that some lawyers and accountants are effectively involved in representing their clients to government, and should be included on the register.  The lobbyists even go further, saying that sometimes the same accounting or legal firm represents clients on different sides of the same issue, without the clients’ knowledge.

If this were disclosed on the register there would almost certainly be clients seeking new representation. 

Another issue is the continued exclusion of company directors from the net, even though it is claimed that some – including former senior politicians – clearly engage in lobbying. In fact in extreme circumstances, a lobbyist with impeccable credentials could continue to avoid having to register, simply by the creation of a new board position.

The Western Australian register currently lists 94 lobbyists and organisations. That’s effectively one per local MP. However, the register has not been updated since last October. 

If the government had adopted the Canadian model promoted initially by the Education Minister Liz Constable, in-house lobbyists would have been included as well. That gives Canada eight lobbyists for each federal MP.

Mr Barnett will insist his plan provides for a proper register backed by legislation, giving greater transparency; but while directors and part-timers who also indulge in lobbying continue to be exempt, the overall effectiveness of the legislation must be questioned.

Federal MPs’ pay

STATE MPs may well be looking forward to getting the 4.3 per cent rise in their pay packets from September 1, but it seems their federal counterparts are anticipating a substantial pay boost closer to Christmas.

The base rate for federal MPs is the best in the country. Their salary is $140,910. That is $500 more than their state counterparts in NSW and Queensland, $599 more than the new rate for WA, $2,000 more than South Australian MPs and $3,000 more that for those in the Northern Territory.

Most states, with WA an exception, have simply set pay rates for MPs based on the pay for their federal counterparts, discounted by the rates amounts shown above. Salaries in WA are based on independent reviews by the WA Salaries and Allowances Tribunal.

The Commonwealth approach is about to change, however, leading to an expectation that the next increases will be significant.

The catalyst is a recent federal inquiry, which made 39 recommended changes on pay issues, including that the Commonwealth adopt the WA approach that the pay determinations by the Remunerations Tribunal be binding. In other words, no more grandstanding by MPs saying they will vote to reject a pay increase. They will have to accept it.

The main change is expected to flow from a delightfully named ‘work value’ review of an MP’s activities. This is tipped to provide the opening for more money.

For example, one federal MP pointed out that federal electorates not only have bigger areas than state ones, they also have up to four times as many voters – and that generates more work. 

This is born out in the two Perth electorates. The federal seat has 92,000 on the roll, spread over 78 square kilometres, while the state seat has 24,380 on the roll, over 22sq km. My federal source says that proves his point.

Wait for the public reaction when the pay increases are announced.  

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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