Westpac is using two former Labor Treasury portfolio staff to represent its interests in Canberra as banking regulation moves to the centre of the political agenda.

Long-time Labor adviser and former NRMA Public Affairs head Brett Gale, who was chief-of-staff to Chris Bowen when the latter was assistant Treasurer, joined Westpac from the NSW Tourism and Transport Forum in August. Marcus James, former adviser to Bowen’s successor as assistant Treasurer, Nick Sherry, had arrived a few weeks earlier.

Both men have been in Parliament House this week as Westpac unveiled a $6.3 billion profit and the heat came on the banking cartel after the Commonwealth lifted rates almost twice the RBA’s rise in the cash rate.

Under the Government’s lobbying code of conduct, there is a blanket prohibition on former ministers and parliamentary secretaries lobbying on issues on which they had official dealings in their last 18 months in office, for 18 months. There is also a prohibition on former ministerial staff lobbying on issues they were involved with for 12 months.

Gale left Bowen’s office more than a year ago. James finished as an adviser earlier this year. However, he appears to avoid any conflict with the lobbying code of conduct because assistant Treasurer Sherry’s portfolio responsibilities related only to taxation, international standards issues, foreign investment and portfolio agencies such as the Productivity Commission, rather than banking.

Both men work in Westpac’s Corporate Affairs and Sustainability area under former Australian Bankers’ Association head David Bell.

Westpac is also represented in Canberra by the Labor-aligned heavy hitters at Hawker Britton. As third-party lobbyists, Hawker Britton are required to indicate their clients on the Government’s Register of Lobbyists, and ministers, their staff and senior public servants cannot meet with them unless they are properly registered. However, Gale and Marcus, as in-house lobbyists, face no such disclosure requirement and ministers and their offices face no restrictions in meeting them.

There are no limitations of any kind on lobbying non-governments MPs, including shadow ministers and the independents. Andrew Wilkie has said he will voluntarily apply the Lobbyist Code of Conduct to anyone seeking to meet with him, and Rob Oakeshott has called for the extension of the Code to all MPs. Their votes will be crucial when Joe Hockey introduces his foreshadowed private members’ bill to empower the ACCC to pursue collusive price signalling.

One of Bowen’s and Marcus’ key tasks will be to keep the lines of communication open with their former colleagues in the Government even as Westpac prepares to follow the Commonwealth in going beyond the RBA’s lift in the cash rate. Giving the Treasurer’s office a heads-up about its rate movement or, if that’s not possible, ensuring that there’s a continuing dialogue about the purported basis for the decision won’t spare Westpac a political savaging, but it will stand in stark contrast to the approach of the Commonwealth, which charged out less than an hour after the RBA’s announcement and openly defied the Government with its decision to virtually double the RBA hike.

Peter Fray

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