Of all the excuses I’ve heard for withholding public information, my latest run-in with parliamentary authorities wins the prize for the most creative.
For more than eight months I’ve been trying to get hold of a list of organisations holding lobbyist security passes to Parliament House in Canberra. I’m not even asking for the names of individual pass holders, just a list of the organisations holding “sponsored” passes and how many each of them has.
Releasing the information should be a no-brainer. Knowing who has unrestricted access to politicians in Canberra — as well as extensive use of parliament’s publicly funded facilities, let’s not forget — is fundamental to a healthy democracy. That’s why lists of passholders have long been routinely published in other countries including the US, the UK and New Zealand.
It is hard to make a sensible argument why this information should remain hidden from public scrutiny. What possible excuse, then, could parliamentary authorities come up with for rejecting my request?
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This one: contempt of parliament. The Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 defines it as “improper interference with the free exercise by a House or committee of its authority or functions, or with the free performance by a member of the member’s duties as a member”.
It is a serious offence, punishable by a hefty fine and a jail sentence of up to six months. Bracing myself, I went back to ask what the hell contempt of parliament has got to do with security passes for lobbyists.
“The release of the list of companies holding sponsored passes could affect the flow of information to members of parliament, and obstruct senators and members in the performance of their functions,” DPS officials said. Translated: lobbyists will only lobby in secret, and politicians can’t do their job without being lobbied.
Not only that, but now I was told it would “create a potential security threat” too. Holy crap. I had only wanted to find out how many people from BHP and Medicare were walking through the hallways of Parliament House and now it seems I’m on the verge of annihilating Australian democracy!
The reasons given for refusing to publish the information are, of course, certifiable nonsense. Unfortunately though, because DPS is not subject to Freedom of Information rules, it can’t be formally challenged.
I’m not the first to question parliament’s secrecy around lobby pass holders, nor the first to be frustrated by it. Former senator Jacqui Lambie made an issue of it last year, shortly before she was discovered to be as British as Big Ben and booted from the Senate. Outgoing Greens senator Lee Rhiannon also raised it at Senate Estimates in October, where she too was told the list would remain secret for security reasons.
“If you get someone who wanted to identify themselves as a passholder, they could create a likeness to a passholder, steal the pass, do harm to the person of the pass they’ve stolen and then enter this building,” said former senate president Stephen Parry, presumably following an evening binge-watching Homeland.
Ignoring for a minute the fact that other countries manage this risk just fine, the logical conclusion of Parry’s argument is that the names of MPs and senators should be kept secret as well, lest somebody mug Barnaby Joyce outside parliament, put on an Akubra hat and negotiate themselves a handsome TV deal in his name.
Regardless, in my case, I specifically excluded individual names to preclude this being used as a reason to withhold the information. Somehow they managed it anyway.
Most would agree, I think, that lobbying is a legitimate democratic activity. It can often (though not always) contribute much-needed expertise to the policy-making process, helping to rectify bad legislation and give a collective voice to those who struggle to be heard on their own. I have worked for non-profit organisations that regularly lobby as part of their work, and even lobbied politicians myself on occasion.
To retain its legitimacy, however, lobbying must be transparent and open to public scrutiny. Keeping this list hidden from public view maintains a damaging trust gap between politicians, lobbyists and voters. There is no good reason for it to be secret, however hard Parliament tries to think of one.
So when parliamentary authorities tell me releasing a list of lobbyists with security passes would be damaging to democracy, I say the opposite is true. Until we are allowed to know who has special access to our politicians, our democracy will remain deeply flawed.