Earlier this week, premier Alan Carpenter asked the West Australian Labor Party to remove a lobbyist from managing the campaign of a Labor candidate.

Lobbyists can play a very important role in election campaigns. The most prominent are well known — Bruce Hawker is an ALP campaign veteran. John Gaul worked extensively for the Liberals. Crosby Textor were the supreme political pollsters of the Howard era.

The assistance can be as concrete as providing office space, or more strategic — providing polling or political advice.

“In-kind” donations of this nature must, like financial donations, be disclosed under Part XX of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 if their value exceeds the current threshold of $10,000, indexed. However, under the Act, voluntary work does not.

Which means there’s three kinds of assistance we’re talking about here: that which is paid for by the party or candidate, that which is donated to the candidate and is declarable, and labor which is voluntary, which is not.

Quite where certain services should be considered on this spectrum is a massive grey area — and one of the least-reported issues in the lobbyist/governance debate.

A lobbyist who manages or plays a major role in a politician’s, or party’s campaign — perhaps on a voluntary basis — is investing political capital that potentially yields rich rewards if that candidate or party is successful — far more so than a mere financial donation. It establishes an ongoing relationship in which the decision-maker(s) have an enormous debt to the lobbyist.

The fact that many prominent lobbyists are former politicians, who usually have an ongoing relationship with their former parties, reinforces the relationship.

Hawker Britton and Crosby Textor are perceived as aligned with a particular side of politics. But several major lobbying firms have former politicians from both sides, and can cultivate candidates and parties to cover all options. And do so.

How far these relationships are caught by the current Act isn’t clear, but there’s no compelling evidence that they’re being disclosed regularly. However, these relationships play a significant role in shaping government policy.

It’s unclear whether this issue will be covered in the forthcoming Green Paper on electoral reform. In announcing the paper, however, Special Minister of State John Faulkner declared that there would be “absolutely nothing off-limits” in the Paper.

Like third-party political advertising, which should also be covered in the Green Paper, regulating this phenomenon effectively will be far more difficult than the black-and-white approach of the current electoral act. It goes to the relationship between current and ex-politicians and the distinction between purchased and donated services.

Let’s hope the PM&C, Treasury and Finance officials preparing the Green Paper are aware of the complex relationships between those in power and those who wish to influence them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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