One of the most obvious features of national political life is the steady stream of lobbyists - individuals and organisations - who turn up in the corridors of Parliament seeking to influence the policies and decisions of their representatives. Some are motivated by their own or their shareholders' interests; others by a desire to achieve particular outcomes which they believe will be of benefit to the society or some more narrowly defined sectional interest. Most people would regard such contact as a legitimate and basic right in any democracy.
This is as it should be, since politicians need to be aware of the needs (and wants) of various sectors of the community and to be exposed to a range of policy ideas. But it disturbs me - as it should all citizens - that there are some who are more equal than others. This is, in part, due to the fact that some - mainly business - groups are able to devote substantial resources to the task. They wine and dine MPs and provide them with "corporate hospitality" as part of carefully crafted lobbying built on personal contact and expensive "information" campaigns. And no public record is kept of these proceedings.
This gives rise to the not unreasonable suspicion that this hospitality and the large campaign donations made by the same players may help to open doors. It's almost certain that they do. Corporations do not make large donations out of a charitable impulse or a commitment to civic duty. They do it because they believe it will purchase influence. However, the promotion of these special interests may be inimical to the public good, especially if other, contrary views are not given the same access or weight.
The fact that, with a few notable exceptions like Western Australia, all votes have equal value does not mean that the electoral system gives everyone equal influence. Well funded lobbying and campaign donations strip average voters of equality at the ballot box. Those who can afford the flights to Canberra, the permanent lobbyists and the hospitality may well drown out other less well-funded voices. Candidates and sitting politicians do respond to these campaigns and they do help shape the policy discussions and decisions.
The public should be alarmed when some people are in a privileged position to change legislation or administration through such lobbying. Since we are aware of only a small proportion of the lobbying that goes on, there is a reasonable suspicion that a great many more decisions are being shaped without our knowledge and without the interest groups having to face public scrutiny of their claims and arguments.
There has been no systematic attempt in Australia to monitor just who is wielding such influence – who gains access, in whose interest and with what level of expenditure they pursue their policy objectives. There used to be a very basic register of lobbyists in the Federal Parliament but even this has fallen into disuse. Now all that is required to get into the Parliament as a lobbyist is a nomination from at least two MPs. Only by inquiry of the security staff is it possible to ascertain whether a particular individual is on the list. The lists are not published and their clients are not recorded. Neither are their activities monitored.
This is in stark contrast to other national parliaments who have taken seriously the need for MPs and ministers to be transparent about who is knocking on their doors. It is seen as one of the fundamental tools to prevent corruption and ensure that government decision-making is not distorted by "influence peddling." For example, in Canada, while lobbying is recognised as legitimate, it is subject to a code of conduct, a complaints procedure and stringent requirements for registration. Such registration goes beyond members of parliament to include public officials. Individuals must register if they are paid to communicate with federal public office holders in attempts to influence - i.e. lobby for - the making, developing or amending of legislative proposals, bills, regulations, policies or programs, and the awarding of grants or contributions. They must disclose the names of their clients or employers, information about their companies or associations, specific information on the subject-matters lobbied, the names of departments or agencies contacted, and the communication techniques used to lobby. Failure to comply may constitute a criminal offence.
The legislation covers three types of lobbyist: consultant lobbyists who are paid to lobby for clients; in-house lobbyists for corporations and in-house lobbyists for organisations. The registrations are available on the Internet. Recent amendments to the legislation have tightened the definitions of lobbying and removed a number of loopholes.
While the Canadian system is more rigorous than many, it is fairly typical of registration systems in established democracies in that it requires that those who lobby on behalf of organisations in which they work or on behalf of clients to register their names, their firms' names and the issues upon which they are lobbying or will lobby. The systems may be more or less elaborate and may require information such as how many and what sorts of resources are being expended in the lobbying effort(s).
In Australia, by comparison, we're in the dark. We don't know who is being paid to lobby the government, on which issues, and what departments and agencies they are contacting. Unless the amount is sufficient to trigger disclosure by an MP, we don't know how much is being spent to inform, persuade and cajole our decision makers. It's time we caught up with the rest of the world and made sure that, while we may not all be able to get the access that money can buy, we can at least subject the process to scrutiny, mount any contrary views in the public domain and then judge the decisions of our governments knowing who has been in their ears. Accountability should be more than a fashionable buzzword.
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