Kevin Rudd says we need a register of lobbyists. The Prime Minister says we don’t.

The Howard Government binned a register of lobbyists set up under Bob Hawke.

In a way, the decision was understandable. The Hawke register did sod all for openness and transparency. It was only available to ministers and heads of departments and statutory authorities.

Crikey understands that it was only ever accessed twice in its life – that it just sat in a departmental office gathering dust.

Yet the Prime Minister himself appears to have acknowledged that there is an issue here – a significant issue.

Remember the “headland” speeches – the statements in 1995 where John Howard set out just exactly why he should be PM?

In the very first one, in June of that year, he spoke of the “frustrated mainstream in Australia today which sees government decisions increasingly driven by the noisy, self- interested clamour of powerful vested interests with scant regard for the national interest.”

“Many Australians in the mainstream feel utterly powerless to compete with such groups, who seem to have the ear completely of the government on major issues,” he said.

Howard acknowledged that there are interest groups – and interest groups.

“This bureaucracy of the new class is a world apart from the myriad of spontaneous, community-based organisations which have been part and parcel of the Australian mainstream for decades,” he said.

Then he went on to commit: “These trends reflect a style of government which will change profoundly under the Liberal and National Parties.”

Lobbyists are key members of the “bureaucracy of the new class”. Most of the time they are either “a world apart from the myriad of spontaneous, community-based organisations which have been part and parcel of the Australian mainstream for decades” or milking those self-same groups.

Despite what John Howard said about government “for all of us”, their business is booming. More than a decade after John Howard spoke those words Julian Fitzgerald, the author of Lobbying in Australia, says the lobbying industry is growing at three times the rate of inflation.

Kevin Rudd says a comprehensive national register of lobbyists, listing their clients and the politicians they meet, is needed to “clear up” their activities. He says he has asked his shadow minister for accountability, Penny Wong, to get onto the job.

Despite warning in 1995 “our sense of community has been severely damaged,” John Howard has presided over a boom in lobbying. And there’s less transparency than ever before.

About the only way we can spot a lobbyist is by the orange pass they wear when they’re in Parliament House. This isn’t exactly precise. An orange pass bearer may be a professional lobbyist – or represent the Country Women’s Association.

And – naturally – the information on who actually has one isn’t made public.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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