Handshake lobbyists
(Image: Unsplash/Charles Deluvio)

If the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s lobbyists hadn’t kept their Instagram accounts public, Inq would never had stumbled on a vast visual diary of their incredible access to politicians. In Australia, there’s an awful lot we don’t know about the work of political lobbyists, whose everyday work remains relatively hidden.

And thanks to a patchwork, wafer-thin regulatory system, we have little ability to ever hold them to scrutiny or account.

A poor regulatory framework

“We have the most lax lobbying regime out of most developed democracies. It’s piss poor,” George Rennie, a lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne told Crikey. 

At a federal level, lobbying is regulated by a combination of the lobbying code of conduct and the ministerial statement. The code is toothless, and doesn’t prescribe any penalties for a breach. That isn’t much of a problem — no lobbyist has been sanctioned in over five years.

It’s also unclear how well the code is handled. Its enforcement has been shunted across government, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Attorney-General’s Department. Rennie says often people within those departments have little understanding of who is in charge of dealing with the code.

The ministerial standards, meanwhile, have been shown up recently by the lobbying careers of former Coalition ministers Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop. Then-secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson told a Senate inquiry neither appointment breached rules which restricts ex-ministers from lobbying government for 18 months after they leave parliament. In that case, the personal assurances of Pyne and Bishop were enough to land them in the clear.

We also lack robust information about the relationship between lobbyists and sitting ministers. The lobbyist register gives some indication of who’s doing what. But ministerial diaries aren’t available at a federal level, and only in some states. And so, we’re left to turn to social media.

The regime is so inadequate that even the Australian Professional Government Relations Association, the peak body representing lobbyists, has called for better sanctions. 

When is a lobbyist not a lobbyist?

The interesting thing is that the Pharmacy Guild could never actually breach the code. Nor could its members appear on the government’s register of lobbyists. That’s because, according to the code’s narrow definition, they aren’t lobbyists.

Under the code, a lobbyist is defined narrowly, to only include third party lobbyists. That means groups like the Pharmacy Guild are excluded. So are other powerful industry bodies like the Business Council of Australia, Minerals Council, corporations, unions, religious bodies and the like.

The narrowness of the code can produce results that are sometimes absurd.

“When Gina Rinehart meets with a minister, which she can do whenever she likes, she’s not a lobbyist. It’s a joke,” Rennie says. 

In another infamous case, Nationals president Larry Anthony was able to remove himself from the lobbyist register, despite heading a lobbying company. His excuse was that he was a director, and therefore not engaging in lobbying activities.

At a Senate inquiry 10 years ago, academic John Warhurst noted that the code was “timid and narrow”, with “very serious” exclusions of powerful groups. We’ve made little progress since then.

Rennie argues this is deliberate — politicians have designed a system that looks like they care, but is too messy and inadequate to achieve anything.

Even America is better than us

But most startlingly, Australia is being left behind on issues of transparency and regulating political lobbying.

While Australia has unenforceable codes, the United States has tough, legislated laws, enforced by special prosecutors, and penalties that include jail time. Laws with teeth have had a real impact. The Mueller report would’ve been impossible without various lobbying laws, like the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In 2007, corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to jail for fraud.

In Canada, as in the US, laws are not narrowly limited to third party lobbyists, but also include those acting in-house, meaning the work of an organisation like the Pharmacy Guild would be subject to greater scrutiny.

But in Australia, we’re no clearer about the depths of the Canberra swamp. And we have little way of holding lobbyists to account when their work crosses the line.

See how power works in this country.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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