This feature is the first in a special investigation Spinning the Media — a joint Crikey/ACIJinvestigation.

Over the past six months, more than 30 investigative journalism students and freelance writers, based at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, have been researching the role of spin in Australian journalism in conjunction with Crikey.

Across December and January, Crikey will be publishing a series of investigations on this theme, including a breakdown of how PR generates news, including a test case of a week in the life of the media, interviews with journalists and PR people and a series of features.

One of Australia’s top lobbying firms has had to change its details on the Federal Lobbyists Register after Crikey/ACIJ found its client list is incorrect.

Governments around Australia have responded to recent controversies involving lobbyists by setting up registers to ensure their transparency. But it seems that no one is taking responsibility for ensuring the major Federal Lobbyists Register is accurate. CPR Communications and Public Relations Pty Ltd, wholly owned by international marketing and communications company the Photon Group, recently was  identified as a player in the carbon lobby, representing energy and fuel companies such as British-owned International Power and GE Energy. They also lobby for Cogent Energy and Gull Petroleum.

CPR’s client list also boasted environmental not-for-profit groups vocal in the climate-change debate and interested in swaying not only public opinion, but government policy.

Among the 74 clients listed on the federal register, CPR Communications claimed to represent the Institute of Public Affairs and the relatively low-key not-for-profit organisation, The Australian and New Zealand Climate Change and Business Centre, which operates the largest Asia-Pacific government and industry-oriented (and sponsored) climate change conference annually.

But Crikey/ACIJ can reveal that the Federal Lobbyists Register is incorrect.

Crikey/ACIJ contacted the Melbourne-based think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which says it is not and never has been a client of CPR Communications. IPA research fellow and editor of the IPA Review, Chris Berg, confirmed that it has never hired a lobbyist, let alone CPR.

Another client on the register, the Climate Change and Business Centre, also denied it engaged the services of a lobbyist.

Director Elizabeth Edmonds told Crikey/ACIJ, “… this is news to me. Wow. You caught me by surprise there. We do not employ — we employ no lobbyists. No way. That is not our mandate.”

Upon reflection, Edmonds recalled that the CCBC did hire CPR Communications as its PR firm to manage the media around its inaugural conference in 2004. She claims CPR was paid to churn out press releases and hasn’t been engaged since.

“The only thing I can think of is that three years ago we asked for their help to get Malcolm Turnbull to speak at our conference. I don’t know if you can call that lobbying,” said Edmonds.

Since Crikey/ACIJ alerted CPR executive chairman Adam Kilgour and the government office that administers the register, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to the discrepancies, CPR’s client list has been updated. The IPA and CBCC have been removed, along with CPR’s former clients, the now-defunct Babcock & Brown. CPR also removed the names of several of its lobbyists from the list.

See the current public document  here.

The Federal Lobbyists Register and Code of Conduct, effective from July 1, 2008, is supposed to increase the scrutiny and transparency in dealings between paid lobbyists and government. All third-party lobbyists must register the names of their staff members conducting lobbying activities, and their client details before approaching government. Failure to do so will result in being removed from the register and thus prevents lobbying firms from conducting their business.

Kilgour, a former adviser to Labor ministers in the Victorian and Commonwealth governments, is also on the board of The Climate Institute, a not-for-profit accused of green washing clean coal technology when it joined the WWF and Australian Coal Association last year in an historic alliance called the Australian Clean Coal Alliance.

Kilgour told Crikey/ACIJ that the Federal Lobbyists Register has been good for business.

“What it has done is confirmed to the marketplace there’s only three or four serious firms in this space, and most people confirm that conclusion by getting on the site and seeing the client list and who’s involved. So in one sense it’s a good thing and we don’t have issues with the transparency,” said Kilgour.

When asked what he thought of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s recent Lobbyist Code reforms he said: “I haven’t seen the green paper … ”

Critics of the federal register claim that it does not go far enough in disclosing the financial details of lobbyists interactions with government.  Also, it does not include those who fall outside the definition of “third party” lobbyists, allowing lawyers, unionists and NGOs to approach government without scrutiny.

According to David Macgill, from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which oversees the register, this is the first time they have become aware that any of the 285 approved entities and 636 individual lobbyists has made this kind of mistake and listed clients that aren’t theirs.

“I could understand how a small firm might make mistakes…but CPR is a large operation: I’m surprised,” he said.

According to Macgill, it is the responsibility of the firm to make sure the registration details are up to date and correct.

The code states that all third-party lobbyists such as CPR, who intend to lobby the government on behalf of any client, must update their client details and the names of their lobbyists three times a year. Lobbyists must also provide statutory declarations every year for all persons employed, contracted or otherwise engaged by the lobbyist to carry out lobbying activities on behalf of a client.

Macgill says the department gets a lot of individual lobbyists trying to boost their public profile by getting their names on the register.

“We don’t accept lobbyists who don’t have any clients yet, or name clients based on future or potential representation. We do get one-man band lobbyists, single-person operations, trying to register and hang their shingle out,” he said.

When asked whether the department contacted and confirmed with clients on the register that they are in fact clients, Macgill said no, it was more a case of double-checking the clients’ website to make sure they exist.

Lobbyists are urged to comply with the code’s “spirit, intention and purpose“, in order to maintain what the code calls  “public confidence in the integrity of ministers, their staff and government officials”.

The responsible officer for updating the register at CPR is CEO Josh Williams. It is his job to confirm and update the lobbyist client list before it is sent to the department.

Williams told Crikey/ACIJ that IPA had asked CPR in the past to contact someone in government, Williams stipulated that the job was unpaid but that CPR thought it best to list them on the register.

In the case of CCBC, Williams said that a sister company of CPR  in New Zealand, CREO , handling the conference of the Climate Change and Business Centre in New Zealand, asked someone from CPR to make a call to a government representative in Australia on their behalf, “… so we did. We listed them on the register because we are required to include anybody we make representations on behalf of to government.”

When Crikey/ACIJ inquired why the register wasn’t updated as required, every three months, Williams responded, “… we were confused about what three-month update meant. But I understand you’ve been talking to the people at the government register, they contacted us and we were able to clarify that so now it’s updated.”

Sasha Pavey has recently completed the UTS Bachelor of Arts in Communication ( Journalism). She is a freelance journalist based at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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