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Friday, February 03, 2012

Transparency failings in regulating the exercise of power and influence

I don't think I've written anything about our pathetic Commonwealth disclosure laws for political donations since noting in 2010 that donations made then would be made public in February 2012, and lamenting the absence of anything close to real time disclosure. Here we are now at the due date with plenty of media attention to the details of who gave what to whom.

But Bernard Keane nails it in Crikey today

" the Commonwealth level, the laws about electoral donations are a complete disgrace. That we are only finding out 17 months after the 2010 election who donated to the major parties is a blight on our democracy — one the mainstream media, normally quick off the mark to denounce any lack of political transparency, seems to ignore. That blight is there because the Coalition and Steve Fielding blocked reforms proposed by John Faulkner during the Rudd government that would have significantly accelerated the reporting cycle for donations, as well as reducing the reporting threshold back to $1000, rather than the current $11,500 threshold created by the Howard government. To its credit, Labor reports according to the $1000 threshold. The Coalition — complying with the law — does not...."
Pathetic is also the word that comes to mind regarding the current level of transparency in the related field of lobbying. Last year Special Minister of State Gray announced these results of a year long consultation about "improvements" to the registration scheme. No one seemed to find any newsworthy angle-and rightfully so.

The minister showed not even a hint of interest in meaningful reform such as disclosure requirements concerning lobbyist activity canvassed in this post, or in ideas floated in this NSW ICAC report.

Ah, but in the absence of more transparency, the register of lobbyists was to be given something of a lift (?) by placing responsibility with a parliamentary integrity commissioner, part of the agreements with the independents/ third parties after the 2010 election.

We have no commissioner-PM&C manages the scheme. And as The Australian reported on 30 December, the federal parliament would not have one or "a code of conduct for politicians until late next year (2012) at the earliest, despite Julia Gillard having pledged to put these anti-corruption measures (sic) in place by last September."

Update: a reader points out that the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee is conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Lobbying Code of Conduct and the Lobbyist Register, to report by 1 March. Not surprisingly lobbyists (including former senator Guy Barnett) are well represented in published submissions. Others suggesting significant change, some along the lines of the NSW ICAC report, include Dr Bob Such the Member for Fisher, Action on Smoking and Health, NSW Greens Political Donation Project, the McCusker Center for Action on Alcohol and Youth and Mike Ahrens (of TI International).

And of particular interest, weighty submissions from the Accountability Roundtable, and the Queensland Integrity Commissioner Dr David Solomon AM, who has the benefit of experience with such things in that state and is strongly critical of Australia's regulatory effort, pointing out what should be done to lift our game:
Governments have publicly justified the regulation of lobbyists on the basis that this is required by “public expectations of transparency, integrity and honesty”, as the Commonwealth’s lobbyists code of conduct puts it. If that intention is to be met, it is desirable that the regulation should not leave gaping holes that can be exploited by entities that wish to lobby but to avoid being caught up in the regulatory scheme. Creating a level playing field should be one of the aims of the scheme. As explained above that should include broadening the categories of lobbyists who are required to register (or required to adhere to the requirements of the Code of Conduct, in the case, for example, of in-house lobbyists); it should also cover the lobbying of legislators who are not Ministers or parliamentary secretaries. The scheme should also make it possible for the public generally, and others in the lobbying business, to monitor what lobbying is occurring. To be effective, that will probably require publicly accessible registers, to which both government representatives and lobbyists should be required to file reports of lobbying contacts. It is desirable that there be sanctions introduced, for breaches of the Code, and for lobbying by unregistered lobbyists. There is also a need for rules that govern the time that former Ministers and other government representatives are banned from lobbying activities in areas where they have previously had official dealings.

Achieving these aims will require legislation. It would be desirable if the Commonwealth and the States could agree on uniform legislation. This would reduce red tape and the burden on lobbyists and the entities they represent, making it possible to have, for example, a mutual recognition regime and removing the need for multiple registrations. But in any event, if regulation is to be effective and backed by sanctions, legislation is necessary and desirable.

In the interests of transparency and accountability, it is also desirable that the scheme should be administered by an independent person, and preferably an officer of the Parliament, reporting to a parliamentary committee.

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