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Monday, January 26, 2009

NSW Lobbyist Register generally in line with Australian precedents but that's about it.

This editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald is right in welcoming the NSW Government's Register of Lobbyists and in pointing out a major weakness: that it only applies to those who for a fee represent the interests of others, not those who seek to influence government on their own behalf.

In this respect NSW is simply following the lead of the Federal Government whose scheme has the same deficiencies.The Feds followed Western Australia where the Government is at least now in post election mode talking of legislation for a proper register- whatever that might mean.

As Professor John Warhurst of ANU and author of Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals and the Lobbying Industry UNSW Press 2007) pointed out in Eureka Street in November the distinction between representatives engaged to lobby (who are subject to some regulation) and an organisation that employs staff to do the same thing directly (who aren't subject to any) is untenable.
"What applies to one should apply to the other if the public are to have confidence in a relatively transparent level playing field in dealings with government."
Warhurst was commenting about the move by David Epstein last year from a position as the Prime Minister's closest adviser to head of government relations for Qantas:
"The appointment breaches the spirit if not the letter of the Lobbying Code of Conduct and makes a mockery of the intentions of the scheme to calm popular concerns after the squalid Burke affair in Western Australia. It clearly allows a situation where big corporate money is allowed to buy special access to government. Epstein has not been offered this job because of his 'good looks' or even his undoubted generic skills and broad experience, but because he is an insider. He not only knows how the Rudd government works at the highest level but also how the levers of government can be pulled. The unfortunate consequence is to reinforce once again the widespread popular belief that Australian democracy is not played on a level field."
Epstein was a lobbyist in the "hired gun" sense before he joined Rudd's team and in the US would now fall foul of a new Obama order both in coming in, and going out of government:
"If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president."
Registration of lobbyists-even a comprehensive scheme- is a small step forward (30,000 are registered in Washington and that doesn't seem to have fixed much), but in many areas associated with guarding against undue or improper influence, we're miles behind best practice standards such as publicly available information about what contacts lobbyists have with government, bans on gifts and political donations, and post separation employment. In NSW despite an ICAC recommendation in 2004 there is still no cooling-off period when a minister leaves office- resigning Premier Bob Carr's almost immediate move to Macquarie Bank setting the bar at a depressingly low but still within the law level.

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