12 days to go until the Lobbyist Register kicks off and over fifty firms have now registered. However, only two major firms, Jackson Wells Morris and Endeavour Consulting, are on there as yet.

The other big lobbyists like Government Relations Australia, Gavin Anderson, CPR, Hawker Britton and Crosby Textor are holding fire so as to keep their client lists confidential until as late as possible. On 1 July, the Register will doubtless attract considerable traffic as everyone examines who is doing what for whom.

Some large non-lobbying firms are also still clarifying whether they need to register. The code – being a code – has not been drafted with the precision of legislation, and the supporting FAQ has been amended at least once by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to clarify situations raised by firms, in particular those firms where a different company from the head company employs staff, complicating the exemption for full-time lobbyist employees.

At least one smaller firm is using the Register as an endorsement tool. Queensland consulting firm Entree Vous, headed by health consultant Ros Bates and including former Queensland Liberal Michael Caltabiano, now notes on every page of its website that it is a “Member Australian Government Lobbyist Register”. All that’s missing is “since 2008”. Alas, however, the transparency of the Register works both ways. “The best guide to our effectiveness is not our long and illustrious list of clients,” says the Entree Vous website, “it is their eagerness to retain us again and again and again. Our clients include corporations, financial institutions, national companies, startup enterprises, nonprofit institutions and major interest groups.” The firm’s Lobbyist Register entry lists three obscure companies as its clients.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee is holding an inquiry into the lobbyist code. Quite for what purpose isn’t clear, as the operation of the code is entirely a matter for the Government. However, it has served to reveal problems with the proposal from departing Senator Andrew Murray and the Greens that the code be extended to all MPs and Senators. Senate Clerk Harry Evans, always jealously guarding the prerogatives and rights of Senators against executive tyranny, has noted that there are limited options for enforcing such a code on Members of Parliament.

The Opposition is making much play of the allegedly draconian powers of the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to remove lobbyists from the register (subject to a show-cause opportunity), in effect banning them from meeting Ministers. The moment a lobbyist becomes a Brian Burke-style political target for the Opposition, of course, you can bet they’ll be demanding their instant removal from the Register, regardless of any considerations of due process. But given the Coalition went 12 years without a Lobbyist Register, and they’re currently in the process of blocking the Government’s amendments to the Electoral Act to improve the accountability of political donations, such nitpicking is pretty much to be expected.

The inquiry will hear from PM&C on Monday. This might give Senators the opportunity to find out why it took PM&C so long to prepare the code, and how it will handle reports of breaches. In the meantime, the growing list of entries is an interesting insight into the hitherto-hidden world of lobbyists.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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