14/11/2006 - 21:00

Time to rein in the lobbyists

14/11/2006 - 21:00

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There were several reasons State Scene attended day one of the Corruption and Crime Commission hearings focusing upon the behaviour of Claremont-based company, Canal Rocks Pty Ltd, owners of a 45.3 hectares tract adjacent Smith’s Beach at Yallingup.

There were several reasons State Scene attended day one of the Corruption and Crime Commission hearings focusing upon the behaviour of Claremont-based company, Canal Rocks Pty Ltd, owners of a 45.3 hectares tract adjacent Smith’s Beach at Yallingup.

The primary reason was to hopefully gain some insight into how the CCC viewed lobbying, an activity that’s become something of a growth industry in Perth.

It wasn’t a secret that Canal Rocks had employed lobbyists to help pave the way for its proposed $330 million South West resort complex.

Several years ago, virtually the entire anti-developmental and greens movement in Western Australia girded its loins to block the proposed Maud’s Landing resort near Exmouth, so the promoters of that north-west resort felt compelled to employ lobbyists, one of whom was a former Labor MP.

The major difference with the Smiths Beach venture is that the state’s high profile lobbyists of last resort team – former Labor MPs, Julian Grill and Brian Burke, and one-time Liberal senator, Noel Crichton-Browne – were brought in.

One didn’t have to be Copernicus to realise that their lobbying modus operandi would be at the heart of the CCC’s inquiry.

Now, it must be stated, State Scene knows each of these three lobbyists and resolved to be open minded about this high-profile investigation.

But one preconception was held – that lobbying in WA should have become a regulated service sector some years ago.

And those to blame for this not having happened are the cabinets of the Gallop government, firstly, and now of Alan Carpenter’s govern-ment, which this week, belatedly, proposed to regulate the sector.

Geoff Gallop had complained long and loud over the involvement of Messrs Grill and Burke in lobbying, and even instructed his ministers not to ever pow-wow with them.

One report (The Weekend Australian May 27-28, 2006) went further, claiming: “Political sources said the struggle with Burke’s continuing presence in the halls of power was a factor in the depression that led the factionally-unaligned Gallop to resign.”

Rather than act, Dr Gallop, or his ministry collectively, opted to sit on their hands, showing yet again Labor’s lack of foresight.

If he, or they, had acted, we wouldn’t now be confronting a situation where Messrs Grill and Burke plus Mr Crichton-Browne are facing a torrid and costly public investigation, the outcome of which seems set to be far worse for one or more of them.

Whatever the outcome of the Smiths Beach investigation, therefore, the state’s past two Labor administrations don’t get off the hook.

Put bluntly, their negligence as much as Mr Burke’s ubiquitous funding networking, which has included a previously unknown $5,000 to something called the ‘Peel campaign Beazley lunch’, plus his clandestine telephoning, are at the heart of the present situation.

All within these governments’  upper echelons, who thought they were perhaps being helpful by ensuring Perth’s mushrooming lobbying sector remained unregulated, were in fact being short-sighted nuisances.

State Scene doesn’t wish to be Cassandra by claiming it was obvious some serious incident would eventually surface with respect to lobbying WA-style.

But if it wasn’t half a dozen people who warned State Scene there would one day be a problem of the Smith’s Beach type, then it was not less than five.

Interestingly, during the CCC’s opening statement, counsel assisting, Stephen Hall, briefly focused upon lobbying in a rather circumspect and realistic manner.

He said Canal Rocks had resorted to obtaining what he called “strategic advice as to how the developmental proposal could progress to being approved”.

“At least some of the work done was what might be called ‘lobbying’, that is, approaching decision makers with a view to convincing them of the merits of the project,” he continued.

“Presently there is no regulation of lobbyists in this state.

“There is no obligation on them to keep records of who they approach or what is said.

“Nor are lobbyists obliged to advise on whose behalf they are acting.

“Lobbying by interest groups is a well recognised component of Western democracy.

“It has the potential to ensure that decision makers are better informed and, thus, enhance the quality of their decisions made.

“However, it has been well recognised in other jurisdictions that lobbying can go beyond the provision of information.

“Persuasion can include offers of assistance (financial and non-financial) or the obtaining of special treatment or access due to prior or existing relationships.

“The advantages that a lobbyist has over ordinary citizens are not always ones that can be accounted by knowledge or experience.

“Whether any of the consultants brought to bear any improper influence on behalf of Canal Rocks is a matter that will be investigated at these hearings.”

So there it is; lobbying is acceptable, is unregulated in WA, but has the potential to overstep certain marks.

Clearly, if society accepts and sanctions such work that can so easily overstep a mark, some form of regulation is required.

Because neither the Gallop nor Carpenter governments moved to regulate this relatively recently emerged sector, the Smiths Beach investigation must to some extent be seen as the responsibility of both administrations.

Let’s also not forget that Independent Liberal MP, Liz Constable, went to considerable trouble three years ago by drawing up a private members bill to regulate lobbying, with Dr Gallop intimating at the time that he concurred with that move.

Who within Labor, therefore, failed to proceed with that process? Was there lobbying within Gallop government ranks – in caucus and/or cabinet – to ensure Dr Constable’s efforts would be ignored?

Who were those who did such lobbying if in fact, any occurred?

These questions need answers and it’s time conservative oppo-sition MPs moved on this front rather than getting themselves bogged down with irrelevant issues like daylight saving for our long hot summer months.

All that said, State Scene now reiterates what was recommended in this column as long ago as May 2002, namely that lobbying should not be viewed as a sinister practice and most definitely should not be outlawed.

Lobbying should be encouraged, as long as it isn’t concealed and clandestine.

The public should know, or at least have the chance to know, what is going on.

And the only way that can happen is to ensure all lobbyists are registered. Registration should be required on an annual basis with an ‘office of lobbying’ that could easily be attached to the State Electoral Commission.

Anyone lobbying and not registered with that office would automatically be denied access to ministers, their staffers, senior public servants and local government councillors.

Every six months all lobbyists should submit detailed descriptions of what clients they had worked for, what they were paid, and who they had lobbied across government ranks.

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

Furthermore, all ministers, senior policy public servants, and ministerial staffers should submit to the office of lobbying monthly returns naming all who had lobbied them and outlining what had been discussed.

All these submitted reports should be open to the public to access and be copied if need be.

What would arise from this is that we would have created that ever-talked-about ‘level playing field’, with all involved in a particular issue knowing precisely who had participated, who had been lobbied, and by whom.

You can’t be fairer than that.

The real mystery of the Smiths Beach affair is why, despite all the complaints about Messrs Grill and Burke back in and since 2002 by people including Dr Gallop, nothing was ever done either by him or his short-sighted cabinet to regulate lobbying.

Both Premier Carpenter and Attorney-General Jim McGinty should be required to make detailed statements to parliament explaining this grave omission.

If that’s not done, and promptly, Liberal deputy leader Troy Buswell, who has attracted some unwelcomed comments since his appearance before the CCC because of unpublicised contacts with Mr Crichton-Browne, would be wise to present parliament with his own lobbying regulation bill.

State Scene is confident Dr Constable would once again assist in that endeavour.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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