08/04/2003 - 22:00

State Scene - Lobbying for transparency

08/04/2003 - 22:00

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THE issue of lobbying resurfaced in the media last week. WA’s current lobbying activities were first highlighted early this year and Premier Geoff Gallop has had a tortuous time explaining his Government’s handling of it.

THE issue of lobbying resurfaced in the media last week.

WA’s current lobbying activities were first highlighted early this year and Premier Geoff Gallop has had a tortuous time explaining his Government’s handling of it.

One reason he’s fumbling the ball so badly is that WA’s current leading lobbyist is former Labor premier Brian Burke.

It’s clear that if Dr Gallop doesn’t quickly nip this issue in the bud he’ll find his ratings as a preferred premier sliding.

His well-paid but unimpressive minders should realise that Dr Gallop will face embarrassing questions whenever Mr Burke is dobbed in to the media for pulling off another lucrative lobbying coup.

And it’s no good complaining about Liberal leader Colin Barnett’s dogged kicking of the Burke can.

It’s simply a fact of WA political life that the mere mention of Labor’s 1980s wasteful WA Inc past enhances the conservatives.

But there’s another reason why Dr Gallop’s minders don’t qualify for elephant stamps. Last May State Scene highlighted lobbying after several Labor sources quietly drew attention to the growing number of superannuated State MPs – Labor and Liberal – carving out well-paid new careers.

One of them wished to see the explosion in lobbying somehow formalised by Dr Gallop to ensure it never embarrassed Labor, which he suspected it would.

Eleven months later nothing has happened, but the issue refuses to go into the long grass.

Indeed, it’s now shaping up to become a significant conservative vote winner at the next election, due in 22 months.

That said, it’s worth briefly recounting State Scene’s recommendations of May 30 2002 for firm regulating of lobbying and consideration of another, simpler option that Dr Gallop’s unimpressive minders may find easier to grasp.

State Scene stressed that lobbying shouldn’t be seen as necessarily being a sinister practice.

Indeed, if it’s above board, not clandestine, it can be of benefit to society since lobbied ministers and MPs can gain – at no cost to taxpayers – expert information on complex issues in addition to the inevitable spin and emotive arguments.

Lobbying also means ministerial advisers and bureaucrats have their privileged monopoly roles challenged, which is good.

“It [lobbying] should be encouraged, as long as it’s not concealed, without the public knowing or having the chance to know what’s going on within their polity,” State Scene stated last May.

“And the only way of lifting the veil on lobbying is registration, something that exists in the United States – Washington DC – as well as in most of the 50 States.

“All WA lobbyists should register annually. Anyone lobbying and not registered at an ‘office of lobbying’ should be denied access to ministers and his or her 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.”

 However, this tried and tested American regulatory approach has, unfortunately, encountered resistance from many WA politicians, some who no doubt see careers after leaving parliament.

The few I’ve spoken don’t favour disclosure of lobbyists’ fees and in-comes, something American congress-men have had no compunction in legislating for.

Because of this, State Scene now offers a less complicated and cheaper, even if less satisfactory, approach, which at least removes lobbying’s most undesirable feature – its clandestine nature.

Open any issue of The West Australian and you’ll find a small section or notice titled Vice-Regal’.

This insertion tells WA’s citizens who the governor met or what functions he attended the previous day, with Monday’s edition revealing these for the entire weekend.

This practice could easily be modified to accommodate lobbyists’ approaches to ministers, ministerial staffers, senior public servants and backbenchers.

Anyone falling into those categories should be required, as a condition of their tenure, to issue a press statement on the first day of each month naming all who had lobbied them over the previous calendar month.

The cost of such an exercise is unlikely to exceed the price of two sheets of paper and time taken to type this information.

Copies of the releases should be tabled in State Parliament with each minister, and MPs also having to post them on their websites.

These releases should include names and addresses of the relevant lobbyists, a description of issues raised and the name of the organisation, company or group the lobbyist represented.

Although it’s certainly second best to full disclosure it’s better than the present situation, which leaves Western Australians entirely in the dark about all the lobbying that’s going on.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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