This is a much murkier kind of corporate lobbying, the kind that contributes to perceptions of soft corruption in politics. Scott Morrison recently urged the public service to aim for serving “middle Australia” rather than lobbyists who “stay at the Hyatt … have lunch at the Ottoman … kick back at the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra airport after a day of meetings”.
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In New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is currently investigating lobbying, access to government, and influence. It notes that “lobbying is not only an essential part of the democratic process but that it can positively enhance government decision-making”. And lobbyists INQ spoke to — all but one on the condition of anonymity — said Australians tended to conflate lobbying in general with Washington-style lobbying, which as one lobbyist noted, is a “different beast”.
A powerful lobbyist group in the US that is seen to have “bought” politicians and influence is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which donates heavily to political election and re-election campaigns. Another prominent example is that of disgraced American lobbyist Jack Abramoff. One lobbyist said: “There is a perception, wrongly or rightly, that crossing the floor is based on money that goes into their personal pocket for re-election campaigns.”
But a survey by the Centre for Policy Development in 2017 revealed 65% of Australians said they think lobbyists had too much influence, and 73% of Australians think politics is fixated on short-term gains. A 2010 investigation into lobbying by ICAC made numerous recommendations — including a register for third-party lobbyists, the publication of ministerial diaries (in NSW), and a code of conduct — which have since been put in place. But as the current inquiry notes, not all recommendations were followed through.
In a submission by lobbying firm Barton Deakin to ICAC, CEO Matt Hingerty stated: “We would not be opposed to the diary disclosure rules being extended to all MPs, nor for formal meetings with senior public servants.”
Indeed, it’s noteworthy that third-party lobbyists like Hingerty and others INQ spoke to are supportive of greater transparency around lobbying, particularly in regard to areas of lobbying not currently caught by lobbyists registers at the federal and state levels. A submission to ICAC’s current investigation by the Human Rights Legal Centre (HRLC) warns it is not enough and that in-house government relations people should be put on a register (which would potentially be much larger than the current register). The HRLC also called for all lobbying communications — not just “face-to-face” interactions — to be recorded and made publicly available online.