Special Minister of State John Faulkner has amended the Government’s new Register of Lobbyists requirements to address industry concerns about the new requirements for contact with Ministers — but also tightened up some loopholes that threatened the integrity.
Crikey gave a huge serve to Faulkner’s proposal when it was first released for weaknesses such as not including in-house lobbyists. But it still represents a massive first step toward greater transparency and gives substance to Labor’s claims to be interested in better governance and accountability. And Faulkner’s changes to the final draft will extend the register to cover some of the weaknesses we identified.
The two key extensions are in regard to lawyers, accountants and other professionals, who were exempted from the exposure draft Register unless a “significant” part of their activities involved lobbying. Veteran lobbyists immediately identified this as the sort of loophole that would allow the development of Washington-style lobbyist “law firms”. Faulkner has narrowed the exemption so that if “a significant or regular” part of the services offered involve lobbying, they must register.
And under the final draft, in-house lobbyists who also represent other clients will also be caught. This will capture large banks that use in-house staff to lobby for related entities, but should also go some of the way to addressing the problem of third-party lobbyists disguising themselves as employees in order to avoid registration.
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Faulkner has agreed to address two big concerns raised by firms that responded to the exposure draft. There is now a requirement that lobbyists who are removed from the register for breaches of the code of conduct will get a hearing, and firms will not be required to reveal clients where the revelation of the connection would be market-sensitive, but must do so as soon as the market sensitivity ceases.
The Register copped a spray in the Senate from shadow Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson, despite the Coalition’s failure to have anything like this in their time in office. Bob Brown wants the register to apply to all Parliamentarians and wants it legislated. Andrew Murray, who leaves the Senate with a reputation as the doyen of good governance, welcomed it and congratulated Faulkner on introducing it.
Murray has referred the register to the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration to consider ways that it could be improved, including the key issue of whether in-house lobbyists should be included, and whether it should be extended to all members of Parliament. However, as a ministerial code rather than a regulation or legislation, the Register requirements are in force, and lobbyists have until 30 June to register themselves.
This is a busy time for Faulkner. Today the Government introduced changes to the the Commonwealth Electoral Act to give effect to Faulkner’s commitment to reduce the disclosure threshold for political donations, ban foreign donations and tie public funding for elections to genuine election expenditure. Neither the Register nor the ban on foreign donations are likely to make him too popular with his colleagues. All power to him.