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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Transparency and the exercise of power and influence

WikiMedia Commons Lucas
An aspect of the UK Murdoch scandals, the closeness of contacts between media bosses, government ministers and senior officials, and related transparency issues hasn't had much attention locally but it may arise in the context of the mooted parliamentary inquiry into the media flagged by Greens senator Bob Brown. If it comes to pass.  Australian practices regarding disclosure of information about meetings between government and those who seek favours or influence are weak. We could take a leaf out of the UK book. And have a rethink about the benefit to good government of requiring more transparency concerning the activities of lobbyists of all stripes, not just media moguls.

 Dominic Knight brought the Murdoch related issue home at The Drum yesterday
... Julia Gillard might like to answer "hard questions" about her own meetings with Rupert Murdoch. Kevin Rudd courted Rupert Murdoch before he was elected in 2007 – what was on the agenda when they met in New York? Did they discuss the Australia Network, or cross-media ownership laws, or Foxtel's recently-denied buyout of Austar, and were any undertakings made? And while Tony Abbott has spoken impressively about the need for newspapers to keep politicians honest, is he willing to assist this by detailing the substance of his own conversations with media proprietors?
Aside from the announced inquiry into the culture, practices and the ethics of the British press Prime Minister Cameron had previously made a commitment to amend the ministerial code "to require ministers to record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives - regardless of the nature of the meeting". Top civil servants and special advisers would also have to record such meetings - and the information would be published quarterly.

After his parliamentary address a list of the Prime Minister's 27 meetings with News executives and senior journalists since becoming Prime Minister were published in the routine disclosure of ministerial meetings with external organisations. Labour leader Milliband followed suit with details of his meetings with News. Now the pressure is on former prime minister Gordon Brown to do the same- when in office he released information about meetings with his predecessor Tony Blair, but not his own.

In the UK, government meetings with media proprietors and senior executives are being treated no differently from meetings with other external organisations. The Cameron Government regularly publishes such details (plus gifts and hospitality) on line. Here are the lists for ministers within the cabinet office for example.

None of this kind of proactive disclosure occurs anywhere in Australia although Queensland publishes ministerial expenditure, gifts, hospitality and overseas travel details-the Premier's for example.

There have been Freedom of Information battles often with mixed success over access to ministerial appointment diaries, with technical issues arising about whether a meeting concerned matters related to the minister's department. Otherwise information held by a minister was outside the scope of the act.

Records of particular meetings may or may not be accessible in response to an application under access to information laws depending on the content- anecdotally "commercial in confidence" often gets a heavy sometimes questionable workout. But not always- for example former prime minister Howard came a cropper in 2003 when he denied a meeting had taken place only to find himself unmasked as a result of an FOI application.

If media owners and publishers meet with government to push their own interests the lack of transparency associated with this is a reminder of our weak rules regarding lobbying which require little more than registration for third party lobbyists, with most but not all states following Canberra's lead, and a couple (Queensland and NSW) going a little further in banning success fees.

Then Federal minister responsible Senator Ludwig issued a discussion paper on possible reforms to the lobbying registration scheme in July 2010. The public trail stops there, except for an agreement with the independents to put the scheme under a parliamentary integrity commissioner, and who has heard of that since? The possible Ludwig reforms included such earth shattering advances as lobbyists establishing an industry association-a lobbying organisation for lobbyists.There was nothing in the paper about increased transparency. The current minister responsible Special Minister of State Gary Gray hasn't said a word as far as I'm aware.

In November last year the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption broke the mould recommending among other changes, the extension and reform the current registration scheme, and that information about lobbying activity should be "open access information" under the GIPA act. Even a new government elected in March and showing some interest in integrity issues isn't rushing to pick up the idea.

What chances for some action soon to throw more light on the mighty in their exercise of power and influence?


  1. It's interesting that you mention is that Standen court case going?

    "What chances for some action soon to throw more light on the mighty in their exercise of power and influence?" Sigh...if it wasn't so serious, it'd be hilarious. Ever heard the term "SFA"?

  2. Yes Magnet but I live in hope.