John Howard rediscovered Westminster parliamentary conventions last weekend. But he has now set the bar so high that none of his ministers or MPs can hold a meeting with anyone who has a criminal past or is simply declared “dodgy”. Complete overkill will no doubt haunt him and his party.

The Prime Minister is a cynical and desperate man. How fearful he has shown himself to be of a Labor win! Consider his dread: he feels the ignominy of going down in the annals of history as just another hubristic politician who did not choose the right time to go and who never realised he had lost his touch.

If any other party wants to make hay over the Government’s links with lobbyists, there are rich fields for them to harvest.

Take, for example, the official register of lobbyists. Crikey understands that a register was introduced in December 1983 by the Hawke Government, and administered by the then special minister of state, one Kim Beazley.

The register applied from 1 March 1984 and included the names and addresses of lobbyists and their clients. A lobbyist was defined as a person or company that, for financial or other advantage, represented a client in dealings with Commonwealth ministers and officials.

Crikey understands that Hawke himself wasn’t all that keen on them. And they don’t seem to have done much for openness and transparency. The register was compiled, but we’re told that its contents were available only to ministers, heads of departments and statutory authorities. Still, it existed – and, presumably, informed decision making.

But when was it taken from the top drawer of the desk and dumped in the back of some filing cabinet? Why, under David Jull – the first special minister of state in the Howard Government.

Not that lobbyists have been forgotten under this administration.

Parliament House has been in use for almost 20 years, but is only just about to get a childcare centre. There appear to be other pressing priorities, too.

An Australian National Audit Office Report released last June mentioned the possibility of “some kind of ‘business lounge’ ” within the House. It wasn’t the first time the idea had been heard.

Crikey understands the plans developed along these lines: Parliament House is a little isolated and the tables at Aussie’s café fill up – particularly in the lead-up to the Budget, when all the suits are in town. So a few years back a few lobbyists came up with the idea of setting up a Qantas Club style facility in what’s supposed to be the People’s Palace so business types could relax in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed.

Crikey also understands that the PM and the custodians of the building, the Presiding Officers, the Speaker and the President, were relaxed about the idea. We’re told it was the head of the Joint House Department, the normally complaisant Hilary Penfold, who nixed the idea.

When we made some further inquiries on the matter, the dreaded words “commercial in confidence” came up. They can be interpreted in a number of ways. Is such a facility still under active consideration? Was someone going to turn a buck from a facility that insults the democratic spirit and function of the building?

Indeed, Crikey understands that the suggestion has been made that lobbyists should have space in the building, paid for at commercial rates, along the lines of the accommodation media organisations have in the Press Gallery. Talk about moneychangers in the temple!

Labor, the minor parties and the independents might like to ponder these matters and raise them when Parliament resumes.

They might like to and find out who met with whom, what interests they might represent – and what conflicts might be there.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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