Lifting the lid on lobbyists
It is time Parliaments joined Governments to ensure all professional lobbyists are registered. All lobbyists should be required to adhere to a code of conduct. And interest groups and think tanks should be required to disclose who their members and donors are.
Recent developments in the debate about plain packaging of tobacco and carbon pricing have in turn kicked off a debate about the role of lobbyists, interest groups and think tanks. In particular, who influences the influencers?
Political parties have for many years been required to disclose significant donors. The current debate is about the threshold at which donations should be disclosed.
Some jurisdictions, like New South Wales, have introduced stricter disclosure laws for industries where concern about inappropriate conduct been persistent, such as property development. Importantly, both the recipient political party and the person making the donation are required to make a disclosure.
In more recent years, Registers of Lobbyists have required third party lobbying firms - including companies like Hawker Britton - to disclose who our clients are. This ensures that when we speak to Government, Government knows who we are speaking on behalf of. Hawker Britton has consistently supported these reforms. These reforms should be extended to others who regularly speak to government about their clients’ interests, such as lawyers, accountants and town planners.
Lobbyists are also required to adhere to a code of conduct, with the implicit understanding that anyone in breach of the code runs the risk of being denied registration and thus the ability to lobby Ministers, their staff and public servants. However, key decisions on issues like tobacco and carbon pricing are also made by our Parliaments – not just Governments – by Oppositions, minor parties and independents.
It is time Parliaments also adopted Registers of Lobbyists to ensure the same standards that apply to the Executive also apply to the Legislature.
And the code of conduct should be extended to all lobbyists – not just third party lobbyists. Inappropriate conduct by a person lobbying government is inappropriate regardless of whether you are an employee or an agent of a company or interest group.
Focus is also rightly turning to the various industry associations, interest groups and think tanks. Most industry association are proud to declare who their members are and the interests they represent. It is an essential part of their marketing and informs government about their ability to bring together a range of interests for the benefit of policy development. Bodies like the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and the Minerals Council of Australia are happy to do this.
But bodies have also been established that seek to hide from government, the media and the public who or what these organisations really are. It is one thing for tobacco companies to argue their case themselves or through an identifiable industry association; it is another to pass off an interest group as representing small retailers if big tobacco is really funding it.
Concern is also growing about the role of think tanks and whether they are “independent” or not. These concerns have been expressed about think tanks occupying the political spectrum, from GetUp! and the Climate Institute to the Centre for Independent Studies and the H.R Nicholls Society.
Most think tanks claim to represent an intellectual or philosophical perspective and thus assert their opinions cannot be bought. We all hope that is true. But even if you accept that that the views expressed by these think tanks are genuine, their focus, size, research capabilities and influence in the public debate are all inevitably linked to how much money they have.
The most obvious and recent example, is the persistent failure of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) to disclose whether it is funded by tobacco companies, despite repeated public comments on the merits of plain packaging.
The reasons given by the IPA is that donors have been threatened in the past and that Australia, unlike the US does not have the ‘maturity’ of political culture for the public to know. The same arguments would deny Australians the right to know who makes donations to political parties. Threats should be exposed and dealt with using the full force of the law, not lead to a culture of secrecy. No-one could seriously argue that the big tobacco companies would be afraid of such threats. And to claim that Australia’s political culture is not as developed as the US, it both insulting and wrong.
Governments and Parliaments have an obligation to ensure that those who seek to influence political outcomes are required to say who they are. As decision-makers or as citizens we can then judge the weight to give those opinions. Governments, Parliaments and journalists all have the means to do so.
Quite simply, they can refuse to receive submissions or publish comments or opinions from industry associations, interest groups and think tanks that refuse to make appropriate disclosure. At the very least, they could indicate that the organisation has not adequately disclosed its funding. Put simply, it is hard to influence when no-one is willing to listen.
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