Under the Old Paradigm™ it was clear whom you should lobby in Canberra: to change policy you lobbied ministers, key backbenchers and senior bureaucrats; to change legislation you lobbied same, plus the cross-bench senators if the Opposition was opposing the legislation.
The Lobbyist Code of Conduct set up by John Faulkner in 2008, which included the first federal lobbyist register, was established on this basis. It only applies to government ministers, their staff and bureaucrats, who are prohibited from being lobbied by lobbyists not on the register but required to be so.
Now, Labor’s register has its own problems. The omission of in-house lobbyists remains a serious issue, and one that grates with third-party lobbyists who are happy to comply with the Code of Conduct but who wonder, correctly, why being a lobbyist for a single client is any different to lobbying for several. And large-scale firms such as Ernst and Young continue to take advantage of the exemption for accounting and law firms to conduct lobbying activities without public scrutiny — a Washington tradition that has been developing in Australia for several years (KPMG, however, recently joined the register). A discussion paper on changes to Lobbyist Register issued by former Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig raised the issue of extending the register to in-house lobbyists.
But with a minority government, the basis of the register and the code of conduct is now out of date. All MPs, but particularly the Independents, have the fate of legislation in their hands. Despite that, there’s no requirement for someone lobbying an independent MP or a Coalition MP to be on the Lobbyist Register or abide by the code of conduct.
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This may not be an enormous problem if you assume most third-party lobbyists are already on the register as they extend their activities to non-government MPs. However, a minority government and a chamber in which every government Bill can be defeated now means a lot more stakeholders have a lot more opportunities to influence legislative outcomes. The Lobbyist Register itself has already expanded by five firms in the past two weeks.
Crikey raised the issue with non-government parties and the independents: do they support extending the lobbyist code of conduct and register requirement to lobbyists meeting all MPs, and in the interim would they voluntarily abide by the code, or reveal with whom they met.
The Greens pointed to the Lobbyists and Ministerial Accountability Bill that Bob Brown introduced in 2007, which required lobbyists to report quarterly on what they lobbied on, whom they lobbied and when. The requirement extended to all MPs and their staff and included in-house lobbyists. Bob Brown would be reintroducing the Bill when Parliament resumed, said the Greens.
Nick Xenophon has a similar approach. “Given MPs are public servants, the public has a right to know who their politicians are meeting with,” a spokesman said. “Nick believes the lobbyists’ code of conduct should be extended to all MPs, not just government MPs. He also believes MPs should have to reveal publicly all of the lobbyists they meet with as they meet with them. This could be done on a website at minimal cost. It would impose a minor administrative burden on an MP’s office, but these meetings are diarised so it shouldn’t be that hard to show who an MP is talking to and the frequency of those discussions.”
Andrew Wilkie said that in response to our query he had asked his staff to require all bodies seeking meetings to ensure they complied with the Lobbyist Code of Conduct and if necessary be registered. Wilkie pointed out that as part of his agreement with the government, similar to that of the other Independents, the lobbyist register would be moved under the Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner. Wilkie was also had an open mind, he said, on revealing all meetings. “If someone doesn’t want it made public that they’ve met with you, it obviously raises questions.”
The office of Gary Gray, the new Special Minister of State, was still being established today and couldn’t provide a response. The Opposition did not respond by deadline. The response of Bob Katter (on leave), Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor will be posted as they’re provided.