07/03/2006 - 21:00

Shine light on this dark art

07/03/2006 - 21:00

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Last month, former Labor premier Carmen Lawrence was asked during a television interview about her predecessor, Brian Burke, his role within the Labor Party and his relationship with government.

Shine light on this dark art

Last month, former Labor premier Carmen Lawrence was asked during a television interview about her predecessor, Brian Burke, his role within the Labor Party and his relationship with government.

Her concluding remark was in reply to a question asking if Mr Burke perhaps had a vendetta.

Dr Lawrence said: “I have no idea whether he’s entertaining such an idea. But as I was … there are people who are concerned that that’s the case.”

She then turned to lobbying – without actually uttering that word – since Mr Burke is widely regarded as the state’s premier lobbyist, as well as the lobbyist of last resort.

“Look, I think it’s important that people such as Brian, anyone for that matter who’s been in his position, [are] allowed to go ahead and make a living and make choices about how he supports his family,” Dr Lawrence said.

“But I think there’s a bigger problem in Australia and in some ways the position of Mr Burke illustrates it. And that is, that there are politicians, including, for instance, Peter Reith, the former premier of NSW, Bob Carr, and Mr Burke, who use their connections within the political parties from which they came to further the interests of corporations who employ their services, and I have a very real concern about that.”

Dr Lawrence has a knack of identifying what she calls problems or concerns but invariably stops short of offering solutions.

That’s a pity since she’s been premier, a federal minister and has a safe seat, so has had ample opportunities and time to have learned much along the way.

Because of her failure to present a solution when highlighting the so-called problem of politicians using “their connections within the political parties … to further the interests of corporations who employ their services” State Scene offers one.

One definition of lobbying is: “Influencing or attempting to influence executive (ministers) or legislative (MPs) action through oral or written communications.”

One of America’s most successful 20th century presidents, Franklin D Roosevelt, once said: “Nothing just happens in politics. If something happens you can be sure it was planned that way.”

And former Canberra journalist and later academic, Professor Clem Lloyd, has given lobbying a historical perspective.

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

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

“And to this day, ‘friends at court’ remain a fundamental asset of the lobbyists in attracting clients.”

Professor Lloyd’s last paragraph succinctly describes Mr Burke’s present situation.

Now, it is largely because of this that it’s essential voters and taxpayers, who must live under (some say, endure) the laws ministers and MPs impose upon them – often on behalf of lobbyists – should be given the chance to know how and why those laws were enacted.

But how does one ensure openness prevails with so much backdoor lobbying taking place, especially when undertaken by retired MPs who are meeting mates, pals and buddies still in parliament and/or a cabinet?

On first inspection this may appear to be an insoluble problem; but it’s not.

The solution is to simply enact legislation that stringently regulates the lobbying sector.

Indeed, State Scene first suggested this as long ago as May 2002, before Mr Burke had emerged as a much-talked-about lobbyist.

Yet nearly four years on, nothing has happened. Why did two Gallop-led governments sit on their hands?

And this despite one state MP, Independent, Liz Constable, having subsequently drawn up a lobbying regulation bill.

If action had been taken by, say, late 2002, former premier Geoff Gallop wouldn’t have needed to ban his ministers from having contact with Mr Burke, and new premier Alan Carpenter would not now be getting plagued with questions and criticisms about his decision to lift Dr Gallop’s ban.

And the reason for this, pure and simple, is that all the lobbying Mr Burke could have done since 2002 would have been on public record.

Consequently, everyone would have been satisfied: Mr Burke’s clients because he’d given them his best shot; Mr Burke because he’d have earned a handsome income; and the public because all could have known what Mr Burke had been doing, for whom, and for how much.

Here’s how an open and above-board lobbying sector would be regulated and how it would operate.

But before this can happen, Premier Alan Carpenter must be committed to ending the present secretive wheeling and dealing that’s going on behind closed doors.

He thus needs to contact the current opposition leader, Matt Birney, to ask if he feels the veil must be lifted on lobbying in Western Australia.

If Mr Birney, who doesn’t have a good record when it comes to openness – look at how he secretly slipped an amendment into his financial interests register – says he agrees that openness should prevail, the two leaders could instruct the parliamentary draftsmen/women to draw-up legislation modelled on that currently operating across many states in the US.

That would result in a ‘lobbying and lobbyist bill’ this year, which would be debated and, when passed, become WA law.

Under the resultant act, all lobbyists would be compelled to register annually with an ‘office of lobbying’.

Such an office could be attached either to the Ombudsman’s office or else the Freedom of Information office, and if not one of them then to the WA Electoral Commission.

Anyone lobbying and not registered would be denied official access to ministers, their staffers, all legislators, and any senior public servants.

Those who continue to lobby while not registered would be subject to a fine of $250,000 plus one year’s jail.

Twice yearly, all registered lobbyists would be required to submit detailed descriptions of the clients they’d worked for, what they were paid, and who they had lobbied in government and opposition.

Anyone hiring lobbyists should also be required to submit similar returns listing the same details.

All ministers, MPs, senior policy public servants and ministerial staffers would also be required to make similar submissions to the office as monthly returns in which they name who had lobbied them and reveal what was discussed.

And all these reports should be open to the public for inspection in the ‘office of lobbying’ between 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Then and only then will the public, the media, all MPs, all businesses who want to know why legislation is being drafted a certain way, and any voter who cares to find out, be put on an equal footing to those currently practicing the present dark art of lobbying.

Having an ‘office of lobbying’ would transform WA’s present dark art into an open one.

Lobbying, when in the open, is a valuable and worthwhile practice, but not if openness and disclosure are absent as presently in WA.

Until Mr Carpenter and Mr Birney bring on such legislation, their views on Mr Burke isn’t worth listening to.

They are both simply taking Western Australians for fools.

And it’s about time that ceased, and forever.

And let’s not forget that the inordinate attention being given to Mr Burke has meant all the other former MP lobbyists have been able to quietly get on with their work with WA’s citizens knowing nothing about what they’ve been up to, for the state’s good or otherwise.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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