07/12/2011 - 11:09

Too tricky by half on lobbyists’ register

07/12/2011 - 11:09

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The Barnett government is paying lip service to calls for a comprehensive lobbyists’ register.

The Barnett government is paying lip service to calls for a comprehensive lobbyists’ register. 

THE Barnett government’s long-awaited lobbying legislation is a carefully drafted blueprint that permits Western Australia’s already highly secretive lobbying sector to become even-more secretive.

To fully grasp the Barnett ploy to further thwart openness, one must look back several years.

Before 2007, lobbying in WA was generally the preserve of retired MPs and/or former public servants, who quietly topped up superannuation benefits with freelance lobbying.

Demand for such work had grown markedly by the mid-1990s, primarily because business leaders were unfamiliar with increasingly complex bureaucratic and governmental procedures.

That’s why Brian Burke, Julian Grill, John Halden, Megan Anwyl, Barry MacKinnon and Bob Pearce, to name some, became low-key lobbyists.

Four years ago, 75 lobbying firms were operational.

Now there are 105, the largest of which is GRA Everingham, headed by former WA Liberal Party director, Paul Everingham, who employs two former Liberal leaders’ staffers.

Then came that dramatic Smiths Beach affair involving development of a $300 million seaside resort near Yallingup that was actively opposed by key figures in the South West, who contacted the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC).

Among other things, this led (then) Labor premier Alan Carpenter to decree that lobbyists would henceforth have to be registered.

However, all his register, which is easily found on the web, really did was provide lobbyists with a government-paid internet advertisement.

Anyone wishing to hire one only needed to Google “lobbyist register WA”, and take their pick.

Lobbyists’ activities remained secretive.

One valuable outcome of Mr Carpenter’s register, however, was that lobbyists were finally compelled to disclose their clients’ identities to the public.

But it failed to require that lobbyists submit regular returns disclosing who they’d lobbied within government, when, and what they were being paid for their work.

Such requirements, called full disclosure, are something no WA political party has to date been able to bring itself around to instituting.

The trillion-dollar question is why.

Those with nothing to hide need not fear full or complete disclosure. 

In the US, lobbyists meet stringent ongoing full-disclosure requirements that permit the public, business competitors of their clients, and regulators to fully monitor all such activities.

Lobbying US-style must be above board, not clandestine.

In the US, undisclosed lobbying, if discovered, is severely punishable.

Without full disclosure registers aren’t worth a crumpet due to secrecy – meaning no-one being able to discover who lobbyists have lobbied, for whom, and what they were paid prevails.

That’s currently the state of play in WA, and the Barnett government’s so-called Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill 2011 retains this, with the possibility of even greater secrecy emerging down the track.

Mr Carpenter, however, deserves a pat for at least allowing the public (via the web) to discover the names of all lobbyists’ clients.

What happened next?

Because the CCC was monitoring Messrs Burke and Grill’s communications on the Smiths Beach affair, both were subpoenaed to public hearings and charges were laid.

Three ministers – Messrs Marlborough, Bowler and McCrae – were dumped along with several ministerial staffers and senior public servants, and Messrs Burke and Grill departed the ALP.

All this attracted nation-wide media attention.

What happened inside the Liberal tent?

Firstly, polls began steadily favouring the Libs after years in the doldrums after Colin Barnett lost the 2005 ‘Kimberley canal’ election and three leaders –  Matt Birney, Paul Omodei, and Troy Buswell – had come and gone.

The long-demoralised Liberals belatedly pulled-in Mr Barnett to lead them into election 2008, which they managed to win by just 33 votes, primarily because of Labor’s disastrous entanglements with clandestine lobbying.

Understandably the Liberal Party highlighted lobbying in its policy propaganda.

“The Carpenter Labor government is the second Labor government in 20 years to bring Western Australia into disrepute through scandal and allegations of corruption,” it said.

“As premier in the 1980s, Brian Burke led WA into the corruption and misconduct of WA Inc. 

“In 2008, Brian Burke is still a powerbroker and a paid lobbyist, who has been demonstrated by the CCC to use his Labor contacts to win favours for his clients.

“Former premier Geoff Gallop banned Labor ministers from dealing with Brian Burke, but in 2006, Alan Carpenter arrogantly lifted that ban and has already lost five ministers [two unrelated to lobbying] as the spread of Brian Burke’s influence is uncovered by the CCC.

“Even with the ban on Burke reinstated, the CCC has shown that the links go deep into the ALP.”

Then came a carefully worded promise.

“A Liberal government will move quickly to legislate to register and monitor the activities of consultant lobbyists.

“Introduce legislation to create a public register for lobbyists and require regular reporting of lobbying activities.”

That was August-September 2008. What’s happened nearly 40 months later?

A so-called Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill was released late last month, proposing ... a register. 

Wow; but a register that’s easily accessible on the internet already exists.

Secondly, the public sector commissioner will now administer the register introduced by the Carpenter government, and he/she “may keep the register in any form the Commissioner considers appropriate”.

That, of course, means commissioners can scrap the web format and put it into a drawer in an office high above St Georges Terrace that’s difficult for the average interested voter to get to.

That’s hardly an improvement.

Here’s what Mr Barnett said about the crucial matter of empowering a commissioner to “keep the register in any form the commissioner considers appropriate.”

“The public sector commissioner will be responsible for maintaining and publishing the register and will have discretion in determining what is recorded on it.

“It is anticipated that the current operation of the register will continue, with some minor changes in registration and procedures.”

Trick question: why give this responsibility to the public sector commissioner, not ombudsman, who is responsible to parliament, not just a premier? 

Let’s hope “minor changes” doesn’t mean its removal from the web in say 2014, 2015, or later, since there’s nothing stopping commissioners slipping it into a draw high above St Georges Terrace.

Thirdly, this Integrity Bill doesn’t say the register must carry names of lobbyists’ clients, which the current Carpenter register carries.

Fourthly, it fails to require lobbyists to disclose whom they have been lobbying within government for their clients – an absolutely crucial requirement if this whole exercise is to be worth anything.

Please note, absence of full-disclosure means secrecy, something WA’s politicians have so cherished. Secrecy permits looking after favoured mates unhindered.

With non-disclosure of clients’ names and the names of those lobbied inside government, and a possibly hard-to-access register, you’ve got a blueprint for super-secrecy to prevail.

The so-called Integrity Bill has too many hallmarks of a return to pre-Smiths Beach days since public sector commissioners will have “discretion in determining what is recorded on” the register.

That’s another way of saying future premiers could quietly instruct commissioners to delete client names, even if they’re initially included.

Would a commissioner dare baulk at such a ‘suggestion’ from a premier?

Their Integrity Bill, which strangely took three years to draw-up and table, doesn’t inspire confidence that WA’s lobbying sector will see improvement over its present imperfect features.

So, Mr Barnett took nearly 40 months to devise a blueprint for greater secrecy.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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