“The State Government is working on a plan to bust open the secrets of political lobbyists such as Brian Burke,” the Perth Sunday Times proclaimed yesterday. “Under the new plan, lobbyists would need to be registered before being allowed access to politicians and department heads.”

“It has become obvious that you do need some sense of who lobbyists are representing and who their clients are so that you know what the motivation is behind their approaches,” Carpenter told the Times.

“It’s time we produced a register of lobbyists so that we know who is lobbying who. It would certainly help get a clearer picture about who they were representing and whether there were any connections you didn’t know about.”

Does Carpenter actually know what he’s dealing with? Earlier this year in the book Lobbying in Australia, Canberra Gallery journalist Julian Fitzgerald found lobbying is a billion dollar a year business.

The Federal Parliament has 624 registered lobbyists, he reported, and the industry employs several thousand people.

Fitzgerald concluded his book by saying: “A fast-growing and unregulated lobbying industry should not be allowed to continue…A start has to be made soon, before the lobbying industry becomes so powerful that it can defeat any proposals to regulate it.”

Lobbyists – by definition – are plugged in. And back in August, Crikey reported on a clever bit of self promotion by Canberra lobbyists Client Solutions and their survey of politicians’ lobbying preferences.

Buried down the bottom of their release was the finding: “Respondents also voted overwhelmingly in favour of the registrations of lobbyists (almost 75%) and for a Code of Ethics to cover their activities (80%).”

But how? How does registration or regulation guarantee ethical conduct? The best lobbying is based on personal relationships. It’s about nuance. How do you regulate a nod and a wink? How do you regulate a casual conversation in an airport lounge? How do you guarantee that X doesn’t talk to Y who will then talk to Z?

The media isn’t much good here. Lobbyists are good contacts. They provide good stories. They open doors. Look at the weekend yarn about how Burke brokered a meeting between The West Australian’s editor Paul Armstrong the perpetually embattled Education Ljiljanna Ravlich.

Registers and regulations are important declarations of intent. Unfortunately, politics is full of worthless declarations. And unfortunately, to guarantee ethical conduct, we have to rely on parliamentarians – particularly party leaders – to police their colleagues.

It’s almost two decades since Brian Burke resigned as premier of WA. The 20 year saga of sleaze shows how hard the task is.

Peter Fray

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