If a high-powered delegation of senior executives from Comalco or its parent company, Rio Tinto, lobbied Tasmanian government officials or ministers over a policy affecting their power-guzzling Bell Bay smelter, nothing would need to be disclosed under the provisions of the new lobbying code of conduct which was announced on Saturday.
However, if Comalco or Rio Tinto had a lobbyist from a well-connected lobbying firm try to persuade officials or ministers to their point of view on an issue, all that would be disclosed is the name of the lobbyist, the firm they work for and the name of their client. No details of what they were lobbying on, when they made representations or how much the company was spending on its lobbying effort would be made public. All that would remain secret.
But across the Pacific, Rio Tinto for one has no problems with more detailed disclosure of their lobbying activities. In their latest disclosures to United States House of Representatives, Rio Tinto Services reveal that they spent $US354,115 in the three months to June 30 this year on the activities of their in-house four-person lobbying team. Rio Tinto also disclose that their lobbyists made representations to legislators on the mammoth climate change bill currently before Congress, defence appropriations, the provisions of mining legislation and a bill affecting land use in Arizona.
In a release announcing the new Lobbying Code of Conduct, Deputy Labor Leader, Lara Giddings, stated that lobbying activities should be carried out ethically and transparently. But the Bartlett government has opted for a lobbyists’ registration system that will rank amongst the weakest in the world and will do little to improve the transparency of government decision making.
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Under the new Tasmanian code, the only requirements of lobbyists are that when they contact a state government representative they have to indicate that they are currently on the register of lobbyists, disclose the name of their client and the nature of the matters that their clients wish them to raise with Government representatives.
There are other weaknesses too. The code applies only to the lobbying of Tasmanian state politicians and senior public servants, but not local government councillors or officials. Nor does the code address the issue of lobbying via third parties. For example, if the woodchipping company Gunns hired a lobbying firm, the public will be able to find out via the Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet s website the name of the firm and who is working on the account. But if the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania take up issues with the government on behalf of Gunns, no disclosure would be required, even though the company is a major member of the association.
While the code states that lobbyists should use all reasonable endeavours to satisfy themselves of the truth and accuracy of all statements and information provided by them to clients whom they represent, the wider public and Government representatives , the enforcement mechanism is weak. According to the code, only representatives of the government are able to complain about a possible breach of the code.
Whether or not the lobbyist is de-registered is then left to the discretion of the Secretary of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. It is also unclear what, if any, investigative powers the Secretary of the department has. (It is worth noting that the revelations over the activities of former West Australian Labor Premier turned lobbyist, Brian Burke, came from undercover investigations by the state s anti-corruption agency. Burke and his business partner, Julian Grill, are facing corruption charges before the Western Australian Supreme Court).
Perhaps the government too is aware of at least some of the inadequacies of the lobbying code as Giddings has foreshadowed that the new code will be reviewed by the Integrity Commission once that body is established.
One simple way to overcome some of the limitations of new code would be for Premier David Bartlett to require all government ministers and departmental secretaries to open up their diary to public scrutiny and disclose which groups they have had meetings with. It is a practice that eleven members of the U.S. Congress — 10 Democrats and one Republican — have adopted voluntarily.
There are complexities about who to include and exclude from registration without deterring individuals or legitimate community groups from actively participating in the political process. But by erring on the side of requiring a very narrow pool of lobbyists to register and then requiring little to be disclosed by those that do, the Bartlett government is doing little to achieve the stated purpose of strengthening trust in democracy. A spokesman for the Tasmanian government was unable to address specific queries by deadline.
Bob Burton is a freelance journalist and author of Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry