20/08/2008 - 22:00

Website registers as a failure

20/08/2008 - 22:00

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Long-time State Scene readers may recall advice offered in this column to the Gallop government back in May 2002 on the best way to administer the then-emerging but now blossoming lobbying industry.

Long-time State Scene readers may recall advice offered in this column to the Gallop government back in May 2002 on the best way to administer the then-emerging but now blossoming lobbying industry.

For those who don't, here's what was recommended more than six years ago; in other words, several years before last year's dramatic Corruption and Crime Commission hearings.

"All WA lobbyists should register annually," State Scene urged.

"Anyone lobbying and not registered at an 'office of lobbying' should be denied access to ministers and their 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."

Next question...what happened?

Well, Dr Gallop and Attorney-General Jim McGinty promptly ignored this advice and, soon after, an edict was issued banning contact with the state's then top lobbyists, Brian Burke and Julian Grill.

As we now know, that ban had no effect.

And in early 2005, new premier Alan Carpenter lifted the ineffectual ban and all - not only Messrs Burke and Grill - lobbyists continued working without anyone knowing or being able to discover (short of wire taps and clandestine video taping) precisely what they and other lobbyists were doing.

Lobbying Western Australian-style remained, without putting too fine a point on it, a clandestine trade, a state of affairs that was effectively and disgracefully sanctioned by government - and prevails to this day.

Furthermore, the Liberals weren't interested in lifting the veil, making them also culpable.

The reason for this state of affairs was that neither the Gallop nor the Carpenter government introduced what is crucial to the proper administration of lobbying - full and total disclosure of all lobbying activities.

The next episode in WA's dismal story of this public policy failure came with the charade involving those CCC hearings.

True, they now form a revealing, even entertaining, and most certainly damaging chapter in WA's political and business history.

Five ministers sacked, several people expelled or resigning from the Labor Party, and a handful of public servants and advisers losing their jobs.

But we could so easily have avoided all this and saved millions of dollars if State Scene's advice of May 2002 had been heeded.

All that was needed was the instituting of full disclosure of lobbying activities by lobbyists, those hiring them, and by anyone in government who was lobbied.

If anyone in these categories failed to disclose their activities, automatic - even life-long - deregistration follows.

Discovery, incidentally, is highly likely since only one in such tripartite arrangements needs submit a return, leaving those who fail to do so exposed and consequently facing investigation by the office of lobbying.

Clearly, that's a far simpler and cheaper procedure.

What's more, and this is crucial, anyone affected by outcomes of particular lobbying activities (voters, businesses or any other group or association) could trace precisely who was responsible for legislation, regulations and/or policies taking a particular slant or emphasis.

This crucial element - people being able to trace who was responsible or was moving for particular legislative, regulatory or policy changes - is the reason disclosure is essential.

Then came the next step taken by Messrs Carpenter and McGinty.

After the shock and awe of the CCC hearings, which became a substitute for the Gallop government's failure to introduce disclosure, Mr Carpenter announced that a lobbyist register would be instituted.

Well and good, except for one crucial thing - a disclosure requirement was deliberately excluded.

And without disclosure, the whole registration process is as useful as a water bag with a rip down the side.

Presently, the useless lobbyists' register is nothing more than a government-financed advertising website that can be used by anyone, including companies looking to hire a lobbyist.

All lobbyists are named and their clients listed. Take your pick.

If you want one with lots of clients, click down through the list of names at https://secure.dpc.wa.gov.au/lobbyistsregister/

If you want someone with fewer clients, keep clicking, since government has been kind enough to provide you with a freely accessible website.

But the absence of strictly enforced disclosure requirements means no-one - not even government officials - can ever trace who has been lobbying, who they have been lobbying, what they're likely to have succeeded getting done or changed, and how much was paid (and by whom) for those efforts.

All these are details everyone should have quick and easy access to, especially if the lobbied-for decisions made by government disadvantage someone.

The Gallop and Carpenter governments' administration of lobbying is therefore one of utter negligence and crass incompetence from go to whoa.

Their lobbyists' register isn't worth a zack.

But that's not the end of this tragic story of incompetence and failure.

Last week, State Scene logged on to the Rudd government's newly created lobbyists' register at lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/lobbyistsregister/ and was stunned to find it copies the Carpenter government's useless approach - no disclosure.

The Rudd register is thus worth exactly as much as WA's - nothing - except that now there's free internet advertising for 179 national lobbyists on top of the 80 in WA.

The Rudd government's website also carries 25 questions and answers, leading off with: "Why has the government established a register of lobbyists?"

The answer: "Respect for the institutions of government depends to a large extent on public confidence in the integrity of ministers, their staff and senior government officials.

"Lobbying is a legitimate activity and an important part of the democratic process.

"Lobbyists can help individuals and organisations communicate their views on matters of public interest to the government and, in doing so, improve outcomes for the individual and the community as a whole.

"In performing this role, there is a public expectation that lobbying activities will be carried out ethically and transparently, and that government representatives who are approached by lobbyists can establish whose interests they represent so that informed judgments can be made about the outcome they are seeking to achieve.

"While some lobbyists work directly for a single client to advance the interests of that client, others lobby on behalf of a number of different clients. The government believes it is important for government representatives to know precisely who these lobbyists represent when they have dealings with them.

"The register of lobbyists is a public document. It contains the following details about persons, companies and organisations who lobby government representatives on behalf of a client:

- the business registration details and trading names of the lobbyist including, where the business is not a publicly listed company, the names of owners, partners or major shareholders, as applicable;

- the names and positions of persons employed, contracted or otherwise engaged by the lobbyist to carry out lobbying activities; and

- the names of clients on whose behalf the lobbyist conducts lobbying activities."

There you have it; you'll never be able to discover who hired lobbyists and when the lobbying was undertaken.

What that means is whenever there's lobbying that adversely affects you, your business, or livelihood - hard luck.

You'll remain forever in the dark on who initiated it.

Don't expect the Rudd or Carpenter governments to help you identify the clandestine perpetrators of your problems.

That would mean exposing their wealthy Labor mates, so many of whom are lobbyists.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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