One of the more illuminating stories of how corporations seek to influence government came recently from Fairfax’s Adele Ferguson, who detailed the efforts of the head of the Franchise Council of Australia — the former Abbott government minister Bruce Billson — to derail the government’s plans to bring greater accountability for underpayment of wages by franchisees, by invoking the possibility of US government intervention. Who is a member of the council? Some of the world’s largest food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut, Nando’s, Muffin Break and Subway.

The popular Billson joined the council in March 2016, while still an MP, six months after he resigned from the ministry. Under the government’s Statement of Ministerial Standards:

“Ministers are required to undertake that, for an eighteen month period after ceasing to be a Minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister in their last eighteen months in office. Ministers are also required to undertake that, on leaving office, they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a Minister, where that information is not generally available to the public.”

The Franchise Council assured Crikey there was no issue for Billson around the ministerial standards and his work in relation to liability for underpayment and other industrial relations matters by franchisees. “In this publicly announced and well-known role, he is not acting as a third party ‘lobbyist’ representing the interests of an unrelated client … The legislation in question is from the Employment portfolio and seeks to amend the Fair Work Act. Mr Billson had no Ministerial responsibilities for the Employment portfolio or official dealings with the Fair Work Act. Mr Billson’s Ministerial responsibilities were in the Treasury portfolio for small business policy, competition policy and consumer affairs.”

Ferguson’s piece was particularly illuminating because she had managed to obtain emails between Billson and his erstwhile colleague, former treasurer Joe Hockey, these days our ambassador in Washington, and Billson’s former colleagues in the Liberal party room. We’re not normally privy to such correspondence. Indeed, when it comes to lobbying, we’re not normally privy to very much at all. There’s a lobbyist register, as there is in every state. Lobbyists can’t meet with ministers or public servants without being registered, if they are required to.

[Four tricks lobby groups use to convince you they aren’t evil]

But Billson isn’t on the lobbyist register, nor does he need to be. He lobbies for the organisation he is part of, so there are no disclosure requirements. Moreover, unlike in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania, there is no requirement for a Commonwealth minister to publish (or in the case of Tasmania, make available via right-to-information laws), ministerial meeting diaries. Indeed, ministers will fight tooth and nail any effort to require them to reveal their meeting diaries. And, in any event, Billson’s lobbying efforts directed at backbenchers are not captured by any transparency requirements, however important those efforts might be at shaping a bill.

There’s thus a peculiar — or perhaps not so peculiar, perhaps more deliberate — outcome that small and medium business and other organisations that can’t afford to operate their own in-house lobbying area, or which won’t (or can’t) use an industry peak body to represent their interests, are subject to a transparency disadvantage.

Small businesses have their own peak body, the Council of Small Business Australia, led by the well-known Peter Strong, a fixture in Parliament House, but many businesses need representation on specific issues. Large companies may use lobbying firms for discrete tasks, especially given many firms include communications strategies — and even in some cases, polling — as part of their offering. But smaller firms have no choice; if they need a lobbyist, it will become apparent to their competitors because they’ll have to appear on the client list of the lobbyist register.

It’s a small example of how incomplete and inadequate our transparency requirements around companies and other organisations seeking to influence government are, and how badly the Commonwealth lags even other jurisdictions locally, let alone international best practice. An effective system would require anyone engaging in lobbying or advocacy with politicians or public servants to register, and for politicians to release detailed diaries of meetings with anyone other than constituents.

Peter Fray

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