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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Major parties in NSW election quiet about the problem of influence peddlers

Courtesy of Sunshine Week 2006
Another transparency related topic that neither of the major political parties has mentioned in the NSW election campaign to date, is the issue of lobbyists and access to information about who they are, who they talk to, and what they talk about.

The Burke affair in Western Australia, and the tentacles that have reached to Canberra have put the issue on the agenda there. Both the Western Australian and Victorian Governments are in the process of considering a lobby registration scheme, in the latter case with pressure from The Greens and others.

The major parties in NSW don't appear to be interested, although not surprisingly it is a topic that The Greens, Australian Democrats and independent candidates are concerned about.

The Premier, in January last year issued "Guidelines for ministers, ministerial staff and public officials in dealing with lobbyists". However the guidelines only relate to lobbying in respect to a decision "proposed to be made under statute where the decision maker is required to adhere to the principles of administrative law", and are weak in many respects. For example, as pointed out in this editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald ("Shining a light on the lobbyists") ministers are only required to "consider" keeping records of meetings with lobbyists.

Statutory decisions are of course important, and should be made honestly, without bias, and on the basis of proper considerations. But what about lobbying of ministers, ministerial staff and public servants on other issues such as the expenditure of large amounts of public money, and even bigger decisions they make concerning economic, social and environmental matters where individual or sectoral interests stand to gain? Shouldn't we have clear rules about attempts to exercise influence over these decisions, and don't we have a right to know who speaks to who about what?

Radio National's "The National Interest" last Sunday discussed issues about reform and regulation of the lobbying industry. One of the guests, Duff Conacher of Canada's Democracy Watch, spoke about the Canadian Federal system which not only requires registration of lobbyists and continuous disclosure (on the web) of contacts with politicians and public servants, but bans ministers and senior public servants from any involvement in lobbying for 5 years after they leave office. The Federal Opposition has said it will introduce a register, but the Government has dismissed this as unnecessary.

It looks like both our major NSW political parties prefer to leave a blank space rather than a commitment to reform of lobbying activity as the starting point for their time in office come 24 March.

We are all entitled to expect more.

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