08/10/2008 - 22:00

Making all the right noises

08/10/2008 - 22:00


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SO far, so good...in fact, better than expected. The Barnett-Nationals partnership government seems to have comfortably ensconced itself into power, which means those big white chauffeur-driven ministerial automobiles now have new passengers.

Making all the right noises

So far, so good... in fact, better than expected. The Barnett-Nationals partnership government seems to have comfortably ensconced itself into power, which means those big white chauffer-driven ministerial automobiles now have new passengers.

Most Carpenter government hollow men and women have been quietly dispatched, while Colin Barnett and his expectant ministers shuffled themselves into place to begin enjoying the spoils of office.

Undoubtedly the best development so far is Mr Barnett's restatement that Western Australia will go ahead with uranium mining for export.

For reasons best known to Alan Carpenter, the former premier gave his blessing to the Northern Territory and South Australia Labor governments to continue mining their uranium deposits for export, but said he'd forever ban it in WA.

That, plus his decision to call an election six months early, remains a mystery to State Scene.

But back to Mr Barnett.

His other important decision - again, one Mr Carpenter was incapable of making - has been to signal that the conservative Lib-Nat partnership will regulate the still largely Labor-dominated lobbying sector.

Mr Barnett has twice told The Australian newspaper this.

In the first instance, he said he and his ministers won't be dealing with one-time Liberal Party president and former senator, Noel Crichton-Browne, or former Labor premier and minister, Brian Burke and Julian Grill, respectively.

The report read: "The [non-contact] rule would be backed by new legislation aimed at controlling the activities of consultant lobbyists dealing with the West (sic) Australian government and requiring them to report regularly on their activities and clients."

The second report said much the same: "Mr Barnett told The Australian last night that his new legislation would require lobbyists to report regularly on their activities and clients but that he would not attempt to dictate to companies who they used as consultants."

Both claims are welcomed because they appear to indicate the days of Mr Carpenter's lobbyists' register, which failed to incorporate strict disclosure requirements on lobbying activities, may be numbered.

As State Scene has been pointing out since early 2002, trying to regulate lobbying without disclosure requirements is a futile exercise.

What is absolutely essential for the policing of lobbyists is strict disclosure of their lobbying activities, something Mr Carpenter obviously failed to appreciate.

Long-time State Scene readers will recall the following six paragraphs calling for full disclosure, which first appeared in this column in May 2002 and have been quoted many times since, always to no avail.

"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."

Because neither Mr Carpenter, nor his predecessor, Geoff Gallop, instituted such disclosure requirements, both struggled with administering the lobbying sector.

The reason, at rock bottom, for both their problems with lobbying was that they failed to institute a register that incorporated cast-iron disclosure requirements, as recommended by State Scene back way in May 2002.

Had they done so, everyone and anyone could have easily checked which lobbyists were meeting whom, what issue was discussed, and who was paying for their work - all things that should never be able to be hidden.

Moreover, anyone adversely affected by decisions subsequently taken by government stemming from successful lobbying moves could have inspected relevant disclosure returns and found whatever they needed to know to make counter moves.

Why Dr Gallop and Mr Carpenter failed to opt for this tried and tested method - State Scene's May 2002 procedure was borrowed from Florida's comprehensive approach to lobbying - is a mystery.

Things would have been so much easier for both former premiers if they'd followed this course.

And Mr Carpenter would probably still be premier, since all the bad publicity generated by lobbying made him increasingly look like a lame duck out-of-his-depth leader.

But again, back to Mr Barnett.

State Scene is prepared to commend him on the basis of both newspaper reports since they appear, on first inspection at least, to indicate he's prepared to bite the bullet hard.

However, that commendation is qualified.

Let's wait for the bill to be tabled in parliament.

When available a final assessment will be made of the Barnett approach to the administration of lobbying.

In the meantime, however, there's already one area of concern.

Readers will note that the first of The Australian's reports refers to "consultant lobbyists" while the second simply states "lobbyists".

Is that an early sign that some hair-splitting distinction will be made between different categories of lobbyists - with say, consultant lobbyists being treated (meaning being policed) differently to those classified only as lobbyists.

There's a real risk some such distinction may be made.

If that's done it will naturally mean only part - maybe only a very small part - of the lobbying sector will be regulated in an open and above-board manner, while other lobbyists will remain unregulated, meaning they will not be required to disclose their clandestine - but so easily considered confidential - activities.

If that happens, the end result of the Barnett approach to allegedly regulating lobbying will be worth as much as the Carpenter approach.

Zip all.

Mr Barnett has stated he'll offer high standard, open and above-board government.

Hopefully that means equals will be treated equally.

If he was to camouflage regulation and administration of the poorly administered lobbying sector by hair-splitting definitions then his term as premier will have gotten off to an inauspicious start.

As we know, one can easily define both terms - lobbyists and consultant lobbyists - in ways that the small number of consulting operators can be subjected to disclosure clauses while certain other lobbyists, those employed by big corporations for instance, aren't.

That approach would, among other things, expose Mr Barnett to the grave criticism of doing special favours for the big end of town - a charge the Liberals can do without, especially if Mr Barnett wants to be seen as a Menzies-style Liberal, someone concerned about "the forgotten people" (in this case small self-employed consulting lobbyists as opposed to ones on the big salaries from big corporations).

Let's hope nothing of the sort happens.

Let's hope his approach ensures complete exposure of the entire lobbying sector.

All Western Australians, from local businessmen and women to members of the general public, have the right to know precisely what's happening across government, especially when it directly impacts on their livelihood.


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