The relationship between the Prime Ministers’s Chief of Staff, David Epstein, and consulting and lobbying firm Government Relations Australia was highlighted by Fairfax journalist Jason Koutsoukis on the weekend. His article noted that Epstein’s wife, Sandra Eccles, had just been appointed to run GRA’s Canberra office.
The unsubtle implication was that she was there because of her access to the PM’s office. And Epstein himself is a former GRA director, whose lobbying of the NSW Government over Betfair has previously drawn criticism.
Rudd’s office says that processes had been put in place to ensure there was no conflict of interest.
This was an easy get for The Sunday Age . Eccles, who has an impressive CV in her own right, has been with GRA for five years in Melbourne and had only moved to Canberra to be with her husband. GRA is also a lot more upfront about its activities than other lobbyists. It has former politicians from both sides among its ranks, donates to both sides and is clear about whom it represents. It also supports a Commonwealth lobbyist register to level the playing field between it and the Brian Burkes of the world.
In comparison, the likes of Hawker Britton, which is linked to Labor at the molecular level, are rather more likely to have top-level access in the Rudd Government.
Nevertheless, the optics of the link between Eccles and Epstein are not good, particularly given Epstein’s own links to GRA. It all looks a bit comfortable and clubby. And it doesn’t help that Rudd has set a high standard on such matters. Both Therese Rein and Greg Rudd sold their respective businesses to minimise the potential for embarrassment to him. And he has appointed John Faulkner to lead a new emphasis on transparency and accountability across government. This includes both a code of conduct for ministerial staff — which will presumably directly address conflicts of interest — and a Register of Lobbyists.
Both still languish within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
This issue won’t go away. There will be more and more “power couples” in government, or representing industry or on boards. For all their professionalism and assurances of probity, the perception of conflict of interest will remain unless both governments and businesses establish protocols guaranteeing transparency and accountability.
Rudd’s office should spell out the exact steps taken to ensure there is no conflict of interest for Epstein. In the absence of a lobbyist register, it should also state whether Ms Eccles has met with the PM’s staff in her professional capacity.
And the PM should tell his department to hurry up and get the Register of Lobbyists up and running. At some point the perception of conflict of interest will start to become permanent.