15/07/2010 - 00:00

Lobbyists’ secret business out in the open

15/07/2010 - 00:00

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Politicians’ failure to adequately deal with the issue of lobbyists is a blight on the system.

THIS story begins in early May 2002 and, more than eight years later, it’s still not satisfactorily concluded.

It opens with a chance meeting at Parliament House with an MP who urged State Scene to write about the increasing numbers of lobbyists moving about that precinct.

Although I hadn’t actually seen one, since I trusted this informant, over the next fortnight or so I pondered about and researched lobbying, so as to write a column carrying constructive and, hopefully, an insightful suggestion or two.

And on May 28 2002, a column headlined ‘Accountability worth lobbying for’, appeared. Its five concluding paragraphs read as follows.

“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.”

My research convinced me full disclosure of all lobbyists’ activities was essential so everyone could easily check on who’d been lobbying on any particularly issue.

The reason is that lobbyists may succeed in changing legislation or regulations that adversely affects someone, and such people must be able to trace the origins of paying beneficiaries.

Put otherwise, clandestine lobbying must be outlawed so everyone is on that level playing field.

Full disclosure means lobbyists fall under the umbrella of open government, something that’s preferable to clandestine governance.

However, eight-plus years on, what was recommended – the immediate outlawing of clandestine lobbying – still hasn’t happened. We continue having complete secrecy in lobbying.

Put differently, none of the Gallop, Carpenter or Barnett governments has seen fit to introduce the type of lobbyist disclosure recommended by State Scene in May 2002.

In WA it’s an undercover activity, we are ruled by shadow governance.

Before answering the crucial question of why no change, why the secrecy, let’s canvas some subsequent highlights.

From May 2002 until June 2003, nothing happened. Then, in June 2003, Independent Liberal MP Liz Constable tabled a private members bill, The Lobbying Disclosure and Accountability Bill, whose clause 10 required: “lobbyists to lodge monthly returns with the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) setting out details of their lobbying activity in the preceding month.”

In other words she sought the type of disclosure State Scene recommended, but the Gallop government wouldn’t institute.

Geoff Gallop instead instructed ministers to not to deal with former premier, Brian Burke, and one-time minister Julian Grill, who’d emerged as successful lobbyists.

This was a highly discriminatory workplace act and a shortsighted one. Why weren’t other lobbyists similarly blackballed?

If Dr Gallop had instead instituted full disclosure everyone could have monitored what Messrs Burke and Grill and other lobbyists were up to.

And if they or anyone else failed to disclose whom they’d met, why, on whose behalf, and what they were paid, they’d be disqualified as lobbyists and heavily fined.

Let’s hope Dr Gallop one day reveals why he didn’t go for the State Scene/Constable anti-secrecy approach.

The beauty of full disclosure is that it’s fair and just for all. Activities of all lobbyists are open and above board under pain of deregistration and hefty fines without costly legal proceedings.

Three years later, in November 2006, Dr Gallop’s successor, Alan Carpenter, made great song and dance about requiring lobbyists to henceforth be registered – something Dr Gallop failed to do.

However, like Dr Gallop, Mr Carpenter failed to institute full disclosure.

Why didn’t Mr Carpenter go for the State Scene/Constable anti-secrecy approach? Pertinent question?

Let’s hope Mr Carpenter answers that question one day.

In 2006, the Corruption and Crime Commission stepped in with its eaves dropping and photographic division targeting Messrs Burke and Grill.

And then came those dramatic hearings and subsequent legal actions against both men. This extremely costly episode, to both lobbyists and WA taxpayers, was utterly unnecessary.

If full disclosure had prevailed they, like all other lobbyists, would have had to reveal who they were lobbying, when, for what remuneration, and why.

No eavesdropping, no expensive lawyers, no torrid court cases; and no protracted ruining of two men’s lives.

What was the next milestone over and above the dramatic TV evening reports and page one stories?

Dr Constable again surfaced.

In October 2007 she introduced a second and slightly amended Lobbying Disclosure and Accountability Bill, requiring: “Employed lobbyists to lodge quarterly returns with the Commissioner setting out details of relations to their lobbying activity in the preceding quarter.”

Why didn’t Mr Carpenter adopt this Constable second anti-secrecy approach? Pertinent question?

Let’s hope Mr Carpenter answers that question one day.

This was followed in mid-2007 with two unexpected developments.

Firstly, Mr Carpenter foolishly called an early election, which he lost to a belatedly selected Colin Barnett as Liberal leader, who won that contest by just 33 votes plus Nationals support.

Secondly, Mr Barnett invited long-time close colleague, Dr Constable, into his cabinet, meaning that after 19 years as an independent she gained executive power.

Now you’d think that having presented two lobbying disclosure bills that carried recommendations State Scene had sought in May 2002, the now 22-month-old Barnett government would have made such disclosure the law.

Why hasn’t Mr Barnett adopted the Constable anti-secrecy approach?

Pertinent question?

Let’s hope Mr Barnett answers that question one day.

Eight years and three premiers later, and with a senior minister who twice presented a lobbying disclosure bill to parliament in the team – and still no disclosure.

What’s the hold-up?

Why is lobbying in WA still a clandestine activity?

Why is it proving to be impossible to lift the veil on lobbying?

A look at the names on the Carpenter instituted website, which shows names of registered lobbyists, indicates a range of former MPs, one-time party officials and ex-staffers of politicians.

Both they, and sitting Liberal, Labor and Nationals MPs want lobbying to remain clandestine so they can do deals only they know all the details of.

Put otherwise, they want the taxpaying public to remain mushrooms.

If full disclosure prevailed, as recommended in 2002, and Dr Constable followed in 2003 and 2007, embarrassing questions could be asked about why and how presently secret decisions are made.

Lots of cosy relationships with pals, party donors, and relatives could be exposed. And if any such relationship wasn’t reported, stiff fines would be struck and careers would be risked, even destroyed.

Open and fully accountable government is something no party wants.

Those doubting this should quiz Dr Constable on why her two attempts as an independent to shine a spotlight onto lobbying have yet to be acted upon by Mr Barnett.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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