11/12/2015 - 06:04

Tortuous path to law on lobbyists

11/12/2015 - 06:04

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Eight years in the making, tighter controls over lobbyists may finally become law.

Tortuous path to law on lobbyists
PROBED: The Gallop and Carpenter governments tried to distance themselves from the stain of WA Inc, and Brian Burke’s role in it. Photo: News Corporation

Eight years in the making, tighter controls over lobbyists may finally become law.

IT wasn’t long ago that former Labor premier Brian Burke and his ministerial colleague Julian Grill were the lobbyists of choice in Western Australia, causing enormous embarrassment to the governments of Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter.

Dr Gallop and Mr Carpenter were keen to distance themselves from the activities of the Burke government in the 1980s, which came under criticism from the WA Inc royal commission.

In fact after winning the 2001 election, Dr Gallop imposed a ban on his ministers dealing with Mr Burke and Mr Grill. Mr Carpenter removed the ban after he took over early in 2006 (a move he soon to regretted) before reapplying it.

Mr Carpenter did more. He introduced a lobbyists’ roll, administered by the public service, which meant only those registered could be hired to represent another party in dealings with government. If you weren’t registered, you could not deal with the public sector.

But the Liberals claimed the measures had no teeth because there was no legislative backing. They claimed it was just window dressing on Mr Carpenter’s part.

So big an issue was this, according to the Liberals, that Colin Barnett went into the 2008 election campaign promising that legislation for a ‘proper register’ of political lobbyists would get top priority from a Liberal government. In fact it would be rushed through parliament in the first 100 days, to ensure lobbyists were brought under tight control, it was claimed.

And the matter was quickly in hand. According to a party document outlining its 100-days plan, legislation to tighten up arrangements was being prepared by the Public Sector Commission.

Now if you are shaking your head wondering just when the promised legislation was carried, you are in good company. More than seven years after those undertakings were given, lobbyists are still operating under essentially the same rules as the Labor days. And the sky hasn’t fallen in.

There are 103 individuals and companies on the lobbyists’ register. They include former prominent state MPs from both sides, such as Eric Ripper and John Halden (Labor), and Norman Moore, Matt Birney, Barry MacKinnon and Bill Hassell (Liberal). One-time federal Liberal minister Peter Reith is a registered lobbyist, and his colleague Alexander Downer (now Australian High Commissioner in London) has a stake in a lobbying firm.

So let’s see just what has happened since the 2008 election.

The government missed the 100-days deadline, but did manage to introduce legislation in 2012, a pre-election year. The key measures were providing for the registration of lobbyists, formalising a code of conduct, and banning lobbyists from accepting rewards, or success-based fees, for their efforts.

Success fees were a prominent feature of some of the activities of the so-called high fliers, such as Laurie Connell, in the 1980s. In one celebrated deal involving the Burke government and an Alan Bond company, Mr Connell took money from both sides.

Mr Barnett’s hopes of a swift passage through the parliament were dashed when the then independent member for Churchlands, Liz Constable, who had championed the case for tighter controls, moved pages and pages of amendments. Dr Constable had been dumped as education minister and, freed from cabinet solidarity, had plenty of time to pursue the issue.

The issue lapsed around the time of the 2013 election as the Legislative Council had not dealt with it.

More than 18 months later (November last year) the premier had another go, introducing the Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill 2014 to honour the 2008 election commitment. Progress was painfully slow, but it was revived late last month to avoid further procedural delays.

Labor frontbencher Michelle Roberts taunted the premier during debate, accusing the government of overselling the measures and failing to fulfil the promise of accountability used to justify the initial urgency. For good measure, Mrs Roberts said if the Liberals were serious about accountability they would be more open in the operations of the 500 Club, a speaking and fundraising forum launched in 1986.

This caused the premier to see red.

“This government has not been compromised by lobbyists as the previous Labor government was,” he said.

Reopening some old wounds, he added: “I remind members opposite who want to sanitise history that four members of the Gallop-Carpenter governments appeared before the Corruption and Crime Commission, and the conduct of lobbyists was at the centre of it.”

The good news for supporters of having legislative backup regulating lobbyists, and fines of up to $10,000 for breaches, is that the measures again passed the lower house with cross-party support just before the recent Christmas adjournment.

The Legislative Council resumes in February and is due to sit for about 60 days in 2016, time enough for it to debate and finally pass the bill into law.

What started in 2008 as a high-priority issue might finally happen before the government’s second term ends.


STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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