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NSW

Apr 24, 2014

Liberals, lobbyists and finding the fine line between them

Political lobbying is an incestuous reality. But where does it cross the line into corruption? Governance expert and ACIL Allen executive director Stephen Bartos explores.

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In the aftermath of Barry O’Farrell’s resignation as New South Wales premier over a forgotten bottle of Grange, both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and new Premier Mike Baird are cracking down on party officials acting as lobbyists. It’s a good move, one that future Labor governments should also consider.

Lobbying is endemic to politics. Most people who walk into a minister’s office are lobbying for some cause or another. Even the humble constituent who writes a letter to their MP is in one sense lobbying. Lobbying arrives from all conceivable policy perspectives and backgrounds. It is an essential part of parliamentarians becoming informed about opinion. Indeed, some MPs would have great difficulty ever delivering a speech without notes penned for them by an outside interest group.

Within government parliamentarians themselves lobby key ministers and cabinet to further the interests of their electorate, state, mining tycoon, or whatever other constituency propelled them into Parliament. It is what we expect.

The lobbying that the public, rightly, regards with more suspicion is conducted by people paid by other people to use inside influence to have government bend policy to benefit their paymasters. That is essentially the definition of lobbying applied by anti-corruption bodies such as Western Australia’s Crime and Corruption Commission and the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption .

There can be a fine line between this kind of lobbying and corruption. ICAC was so concerned about it that it launched an independent investigation, Operation Halifax, producing a comprehensive report — Investigation into Corruption Risks involved in Lobbying — in 2010. It included a prophetic section on gifts:

“The giving of gifts or provision of other benefits to a public official by a person seeking a favourable decision … poses an obvious corruption risk.”

The best defence is transparency; if the processes and the grounds for the decision are open, it is less likely to be corrupt. That is where lobbying by party officials poses particular problems.

At least with lobbyists who are registered (here, for example, is the Commonwealth list; states have similar registers), ministers know where they stand. The lobbyist comes to the minister representing a particular concern or interest. If they present effective arguments and good evidence they can assist the decision-making process. Ministers and their advisers, provided they are aware of the source of the advice, are generally smart enough to be able to distinguish between genuine evidence and special pleading.

With a party official the lines are blurred. Are they putting an argument on behalf of the client, or because party members are concerned? And if the latter, thinks the minister, is my preselection at risk? Are they giving me a gift because they like me or because they want to influence my thinking?

At least we are better off than in the United Kingdom, where parliamentarians can be and have been employed as lobbyists, leading to widespread perceptions of corruption. Their anti-corruption committee wants them sent on ethics training to improve behaviour.

The United States has the world’s largest and best-funded lobby groups. The National Rifle Association infamously is reputed to be able to make or break political careers, but hundreds of other equally influential bodies represent various industry and other groupings (oil, pharmaceuticals, defence, farming, whatever). An essay by Alex Mitchell suggests lobbying there is worth $3.3 billion and employs more than 12,000 people.

There, too, it can lead to corruption, as in the Jack Abramoff case (a highly influential lobbyist found to have made illegal and corrupt payments to influence decisions). But such cases do tend to come to light because of strict disclosure rules and severe penalties for corrupt lobbying behaviour.

Mitchell worries “we will slip further down the American path”. We may already be further than he thinks — lobby groups like the Minerals Council, Australian Food and Grocery Council and Medicines Australia wield heavy influence in Parliament. The Business Council of Australia’s previous president, Tony Shepherd, chaired (and its chief economist headed the secretariat for) the National Commission of Audit, which will be the key influence on the coming federal budget.

So while the Abbot and the Baird government announcements will help clear up one of the grey areas around lobbying, the problem of influence peddling will not go away. The best way to deal with them is to have clear and transparent rules, and independent oversight.

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