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Monday, February 06, 2012

Who's lobbying for more sunshine for lobbying activity?

When it comes to half-hearted schemes supposedly designed to throw light on those who seek to influence government decision making, the federal arena is not unique. More transparency is needed not just there, but in the states as well.

As Sean Nicholls, state political editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, in The power of a word in the ministerial ear reflected in his piece on Saturday about the activities in NSW corridors of power of the poker machine lobby, and the ethanol producer Manildra . Not that he is saying that business people and other interest groups do not have a right to lobby ministers:
Of course they do - that's one way government gets to know about issues that affect them and possible remedies. The problem is this: the public is kept in the dark about these high-level meetings. It takes a controversy - or a cabinet leak, as was the case with ethanol - to bring them into the open.
Nicholls advocated a register of meetings held by ministers that makes public the date, the participants and the issue that was discussed. In effect a government wide version extending to ministers, of the Lobbyist Contact Register published by the Department of Planning, which currently records only meetings of third party lobbyists with the department: 
If the O'Farrell government is committed to transparency it might consider two changes as a matter of priority: alter the definition of a lobbyist to include any private sector interest pushing for government action; and introduce a publicly available lobbyist contact register for every department and its minister.
Surely the government has nothing to hide.
There is more that could and should be done in the interests of transparency, outlined in a report on corruption risks sitting somewhere in the system since November 2010.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption drew attention to the lack of transparency in the current NSW lobbying regulatory system, describing it as
" a major corruption risk, and contributes significantly to public distrust. Those who lobby may be entitled to private communications with the people that they lobby, but they are not entitled to secret communications.The public is entitled to know that lobbying is occurring, to ascertain who is involved and, in the absence of any overriding public interest against disclosure, to know what occurred during the lobbying activity."
Other corruption risks cited in the report were inadequate record keeping, involvement with political fund raising, gifts and benefits, difficulty of access to information, former public officials acting as lobbyists, exploitation of privileged access and payment of success fees. The O'Farrell government acted promptly after election last year to legislate for a cooling off period for ministers after they moved on, and to ban success fees. Silence on the rest so far. But it is having a crack at doing more to limit political donations.

ICAC recommended widening the registration requirement to cover all third party lobbyists  and "Lobbying Entities" including industry associations, trade unions, employer groups, religious and charitable organisations, and corporations that employ staff or have board members who lobby on their behalf; requiring those in government who are lobbied to create records of the lobbying activity, and for those records to then be accessible to the public as "open access information" under the GIPA act, for which there is no overriding public interest against disclosure; and a new role for an independent government entity, such as the NSW Information Commissioner to monitor the scheme and impose sanctions on lobbyists where necessary.

No takers?

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