Shine a light on shady lobbying

The risk of corruption will remain unless the very nature of lobbying evolves from being about access and influence to being about an open and informed government.

In contrast with Labor’s calls for reforms to prevent future political corruption, and the Liberals’ quiet acceptance of the same, the other main protagonists in NSW’s shady political practices have remained steadfastly silent.

The lobbyists – be they door-openers, influence-wielders or policy-shapers – are employing a small-target strategy in the hope of surviving the rout.

By staying low and keeping quiet, lobbyists are hoping the latest political storm will pass over without their practices being placed under similar scrutiny. For the lobbyists know that any such exposure could lead to other reforms that could seriously curtail their business and livelihoods.

There are essentially three types of lobbyists: consultants, corporates and lobby groups. The consultants work for lobbying firms, charging healthy retainers to keep clients informed about relevant issues and get meetings with politicians when the clients feel the need to be “influential”.

With door-opening and intelligence-gathering being their main concerns, the consultants tend to be former political staffers and retired politicians. Their currency is who they know, which is usually based on who they used to be.

Corporate lobbyists are an in-house version of the consultant, dedicated to providing their company with political information and access. They’re usually former political staffers too, sometimes even poached from the relevant minister’s office to ensure they have the most up-to-date policy knowledge and political contacts. Both consultant and corporate lobbyists tend to rely on political networks and influence to get their desired results.

And then there are the lobby groups, who can be advocates for anything from environmental and social concerns to industry and business interests. These lobbyists spend the bulk of their time trying to influence legislation that impacts on their members’ issues, but their success comes from understanding the interaction of politics and policy.

Lobby groups spend a great deal of time working with government departments with the aim of shaping legislation while it is being developed. They tend only to knock on a politician’s door when there is a need to create political momentum or reinforcement for what they’re trying to achieve at the policy level within departments.

Because of this focus on policy as well as politics, lobby group advocates come from a broader range of backgrounds; some are indeed former political staffers (and there is even a former chief minister running one business lobby group), but there are also ex-journalists and people with business and departmental backgrounds.

By and large all three types of lobbyists are ethical operators. But they ply their trade in a murky world of politics that is governed by power plays, allegiances, and the inevitability of numbers in cabinet, the party room or the electorate.

The challenge for any lobbyist is to be aware of, and use, these elements without actually becoming involved in them. This risk is exacerbated when political and party operatives take on lobbying roles. And it exponentially grows when lucrative government contracts and lobbyist success fees are involved.

Which brings us to ICAC and the unfortunate case of Barry O’Farrell’s misplaced wine.

The government contractor-on-the-make who gifted the Grange to O’Farrell was not only a lobbyist and Liberal Party donor but CEO of a company that depended on government patronage to survive. Nick Di Girolamo lobbied for Liberal government contracts to be granted to AWH, and employed a party official and former senior political staffer (Arthur Sinodinos) as well as another party official and former state MP (Michael Photios) to do the same.

It’s one thing to lobby for preferred policy settings and laws, which is what most lobbyists do. It may be tricky sometimes to get the balance right between good politics and sound policy, but at least the public interest test can be applied in Parliament and the media.

The granting of government contracts is far less transparent, and when there’s no official tender process the transaction can be completely opaque. It’s therefore no surprise that this avenue for using influence and extracting favours, protected as it is from public scrutiny, has been exploited by lobbyists (and politicians) who stand to gain from transactions made under such cover.

It’s commendable that Tony AbbottJohn Robertson and the Greens are putting in place reforms in an attempt to inoculate their parties against shady lobbying practices. It’s a good start to insist that party officials cannot also be lobbyists, and that a broader range of relevant pecuniary interests be declared.

But political patronage and the risk of corruption will remain unless the very nature of lobbying evolves from being about access and influence to being about an open and informed government.

To achieve this, lobbying for government contracts should be banned. Former parliamentarians and staffers should be barred from taking on any lobbying roles for at least 12 months, which is a broader proscription than currently set out in the federal government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct. All lobbyists, and not just the consultants, should be required to place their interests on the lobbyists register. And all ministers should keep open diaries so that any member of the public could see which lobbyists had darkened their doorways and on what issues.

Finally, political parties should stop selling access to politicians at exclusive fund-raising dinners and through the business observer programs at their political conferences. Such a hit to the parties’ bottom lines may prove the hardest reform of all but would be necessary to change a political culture that is currently based on access and influence for those who have the capacity to pay.

John Robertson, although breathtakingly hypocritical in light of his own party’s track record, is right to point out the insidious nature of paid influence in today’s political and government processes. But he and all other political leaders need to broaden their scopes.

Political parties may be intent on calling each other out over undue influence and favours, and the media transfixed by every thrust and parry, but unless the actual practice of lobbying is cleaned up, the rest is mere rhetoric.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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