21/11/2006 - 21:00

Positives emerge from inquiry

21/11/2006 - 21:00

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Better late than never is all State Scene can say about the Carpenter government’s moves to regulate Western Australia’s tiny band of lobbyists.

Better late than never is all State Scene can say about the Carpenter government’s moves to regulate Western Australia’s tiny band of lobbyists.

It’s now four and a half years since this column – the May 30 2002, issue – urged the then 15-month-old Gallop government to require lobbyists to be registered because the sector was operating in a clandestine manner.

The reason that advice was proffered so long ago was that an excellent source deep inside the Labor Party had alerted State Scene to the fact that Perth’s lobbying sector was being dominated by superannuated politicians.

The opening paragraph of that column read: “Increasing numbers of state MPs are retiring from parliament and launching careers as well-paid lobbyists, in the process drawing incomes over and above their handsome six-figure parliamentary pensions.”

What particularly concerned the informant was that unelected individuals could mould legislation.

This, the informant believed, meant WA was seeing the emergence of what he called a shadow government.

In other words, former MPs, under the guise of lobbying, could increasingly come to call the legislative shots, which would be far worse than the present situation.

Now, it must be said, the informant appreciated well WA’s system of governance knowing not only all its many failings but also that few MPs have what can be called in-depth understanding or appreciation of legislation that’s being passed.

Party discipline permits ministers and their bureaucrats and advisers to now call all the legislative shots, with backbenchers obediently doing as they’re told; that is, putting their hands up whenever party whips say its time to do so.

As we all now know, State Scene’s May 2002 advice was ignored by Dr Gallop and his ministers.

The next milestone in Labor’s mismanagement of the clandestine lobbying sector came nearly a year later.

In early 2003 Dr Gallop, on learning that former Labor premier Brian Burke and his long-time pal, Julian Grill, were actively lobbying ministers and their staffers, spoke out adamantly and publicly against them.

It was this Gallop stance, which several ministers ignored, that led to Independent Liberal MP, Liz Constable, on June 11 2003, reading her Lobbying Disclosure and Accountability Bill a second time.

As invariably happens to minority initiated bills under our dictatorial parliamentary system, it vanished into the legislature’s vortex.

And that’s how matters would have stayed if the Smiths Beach debacle hadn’t surfaced.

What happened was that certain unknown persons contacted the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) late last year.

Interestingly, State Scene is assured that one CCC informant was a Liberal lobbyist.

If that’s so, the CCC can be seen to have been used as a weapon of one lobbyist to counter moves by three others – Messrs Burke, Grill and Noel Crichton-Browne.

That’s certainly a strange twist that’s so far had little airplay. Nor has the Nimby (not in my backyard) aspect of several well-healed south-western residents and land owners within this affair yet been highlighted.

Another interesting twist is the fact that leftist power broker and attorney-general, Jim McGinty, knew from nearly day one that the CCC’s surveillance unit was bugging Mr Burke’s many telephone chats.

Although no-one doubts Mr McGinty kept such inside information to himself, it surely gave him a kick to know Mr Burke, the dominant right wing power broker and his factional rival since the late 1970s, was a person of interest to the CCC.

It’s worth noting that the issue of lobbying received little or no attention during the February 2005 state election.

Labor, the Greens, and the conservative parties didn’t believe it was an issue worth highlighting.

That’s a kind way of saying that, as well Dr Gallop and Mr Carpenter sleeping on the job, Colin Barnett, Matt Birney, Paul Omodei, and Nationals leaders Max Trenorden and Brendan Grylls, were also snoozing at the wheel.

Under such circumstances is it fair to heap all the blame on Mr Carpenter for the Smiths Beach debacle?

Should not some of the responsibility be shared with several of his ministers – especially Mr McGinty, who is after all the state’s chief law legislator – and the non-Labor parties for being so silent for so long?

Inordinate attention has so far been given to Mr Carpenter’s naivety in officially opening the door to Mr Burke by lifting the Gallop Burke-Grill ban, and the elevation of Norm Marlborough to cabinet.

The Liberals have understandably had a field day since day one of the CCC’s Smiths Beach inquiry’s hearings.

However, this outcome for them has been due more to good luck than good management, farsightedness and dedication to good governance.

Firstly, the appearance of their one-time president, former senator Crichton-Browne, as a key figure in the debacle, has left them immune to damage because he was expelled from the party in 1996.

Also, his contacting of party deputy leader and former Busselton mayor, Troy Buswell, has, so far at least, not brought up anything untoward.

And there’s the fact that their virtually fully endorsed Busselton Shire councillor, Philippa Reid, for the federal seat of Forrest was quickly and adroitly handled by her removal.

State Scene’s sources say several Busselton and Dunsborough-based Liberal rank-and-file members made it clear to party president Danielle Blain that Ms Reid should not have her endorsement confirmed.

It’s claimed those feelings were strongly passed on to Ms Reid, who agreed to fall on her sword, so to speak, by advising the last Liberal state council meeting she was withdrawing her candidature.

Where does all this leave matters?

Well, it’s fair to conclude that Messrs Grill and Burke will no longer practice as direct lobbyists, since Mr Carpenter says he won’t permit their names to be included on the forthcoming lobbyists’ register.

In Labor and union circles that’s called black banning or blackballing.

Each must now seek employment elsewhere, or retire.

Interestingly, however, Mr Crichton-Browne hasn’t been blackballed, so there's nothing to stop him employing Messrs Grill and Burke as full-time consultants.

Several former senior Liberal MPs now working as lobbyists may choose to depart this briefly budding service sector, simply because the Smiths Beach debacle has sullied their new careers.

Only time will tell how Perth’s dozen or so quite active lobbyists react to the long-overdue registration move.

The least desirable outcome would be if all, or most, departed the lobbying sector.

More, rather than fewer, lobbyists is what’s required, otherwise the legislative process will be monopolised by a handful of ministers who could easily be snowed by ministerial and bureaucratic advisers.

Let’s not forget, lobbying has been with human kind for a long time indeed, and without it, rulers would have been further removed from their subjects.

To appreciate this it helps to quote former Labor ministerial speechwriter and one-time Canberra academic, Professor Clem Lloyd, who made this point well.

“The Old and New Testaments are studded with instances of pressure groups, lobbyists, professional advocates, and the petitioning of potentates,” he wrote.

“The courts of European monarchs such as Henry VIII and Louis XIV were designed at least partly to receive the petitioning, importuning and beseeching of the government.”

Let’s therefore hope the Smiths Beach debacle doesn’t lead to a complete vacating from an activity that’s played an important role in earlier eras.

If mass vacating occurred we’d find our legislative process transformed forever into the plaything of only the very few.

It’s important, indeed, crucial, that state ministers and their advisers are open to a diverse range of views, stances and opinions when drawing up legislation, not just those of a tiny band of close-in bureaucrats and boffins.

The existence of an open and above board lobbying sector is one way of helping ensure that occurs.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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