PUBLIC AFFAIRS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Overdue steps to ensure open government
, November 10, 2007
Much political corruption could be prevented, and government ministers publicly made more accountable, if Australian lobbyists were required to register their activities and meet stringent ongoing disclosure requirements, argues Joseph Poprzeczny.The nearly two year-long investigation into the lobbying activities of former Western Australian premier, Brian Burke, who, amongst other things, was paving the way for a $330 million Smiths Beach resort complex, is an instructive exercise into how not to attempt to regulate political lobbyists.
This became evident with the tabling this month of a 120-page Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) report into Burke's and business partner Julian Grill's lobbying for the now stalled resort.
The investigation - which involved tapping Burke's telephones and wiring Grill's apartment - has cost WA taxpayers over $4 million; yet the subsequent report has fallen well short of recommending that legal action be taken against either lobbyist.Ministers sacked
However, the investigation and subsequent public hearings resulted in the sacking of three Labor ministers; the dumping of several ministerial staffers and senior public servants; the expulsion of Burke and Grill from the Labor Party; and the reinstatement of an ineffective ban on MPs and government officials contacting the pair.
Apart from that, both lobbyists have been left unscathed beyond sizeable legal costs incurred in defending themselves before CCC hearings and several months of condemnatory nationwide media coverage including an ABC television Four Corners
How did this come to pass?
That question is best answered by highlighting the incompetent way in which two Labor premiers - Dr Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter - and longtime Burke and Grill factional rival, Attorney-General Jim McGinty, have treated the lobbying issue since February 2001 when Labor won power.
It's important to note that lobbying in WA for decades was undertaken by retired MPs and/or retired public servants who intermittently topped up their superannuation benefits with freelance lobbying work.
Since about the mid-1980s, however, demand for such work has steadily increased. The main reason for this is that most captains of industry are unfamiliar with the increasingly complex political and bureaucratic procedures of government.
In addition, WA's ongoing economic expansion and diversification have meant the stakes have climbed into the multi-billion dollar bracket.
Consequently, two decades later, WA has 74 lobbying groups and individuals who are currently representing 277 clients.
We know this because the Smith Beach Affair finally prompted the lethargic Carpenter Government to require lobbyists to enter their names on a list which also identifies their clients.
But that's all that's required.
The list is not a bona fide
lobbyists' register, as exists in some other countries. For example, in Washington DC and most American states, lobbyists must not only register but meet stringent ongoing disclosure requirements which permit competitor clients and governments to monitor and trace lobbyists' activities.
Failure to abide by such conditions leads to automatic banning from practising the age-old craft of lobbying.
Retired WA politicians, because of their parliamentary, caucus and ministerial experience, found they could relatively easily navigate their way through the maze of departments, agencies and quangos.
In many cases, they simply contacted old political pals or departmental officers they'd known well when in politics. Such part-time or ad hoc lobbying was undertaken by members from all the major parties.
By the early 1990s, however, the first group of formal lobbyists began emerging. Among the new, and markedly more professional, players was former state Liberal Opposition leader, Barry MacKinnon (1986-92).
And to show the non-partisan nature of such work, MacKinnon, for a time, teamed-up with one-time Burke Government education and environment minister, Bob Pearce.
But after the emergence of the Gallop Government in 2001, WA's once miniscule lobbying sector began blossoming to quite sizeable levels.
Burke and Grill - the central figures of the CCC's inquiries into Busselton Shire's handling of the Smiths Beach project, and projects in two other councils, Wanneroo and Cockburn - never joined this avalanche until late 2002, well after several lobbyists were already well-established.
One early entrant was former Labor MP, John Halden, a central figure in a Royal Commission inquiry into the government of Labor premier Carmen Lawrence's mishandling of the so-called Easton Affair, which involved the suicide of Perth lawyer, Penny Easton.
Halden and longtime Perth political reporter, Anne Burns, initially headed up well-known Labor-oriented nationwide lobbying agency, Hawker-Britton, headed in Victoria by former Bracks Labor Government minister, David White, that is currently being investigated by a Victorian Upper House committee.
However, Halden and Burns quickly branched out as Halden-Burns Pty Ltd, and currently have 30 clients - more than any competitor. Their clients include Westfield Ltd and Rio Tinto Services. Interestingly, their place at Hawker-Britton was filled by another former state Labor MP, Megan Anwyl, who represented a goldfields seat.
Another with a sizeable clientele is former WA Labor MHR, Ron Edwards, with 12 clients.
Most of WA's 74 lobbyists with sizeable client lists have links into the Labor Party. Even former Labor Premier, Peter Dowding, works as a lobbyist, and currently has six clients; while his brother, Simon, formerly a McGinty staffer, is with a group that has 18 clients.
Those with links to the Liberal Party are also represented. Former state MP, Bernie Masters, and onetime WA Liberal Party state director, Paul Everingham (son of former Northern Territory chief minister of the same name), are also listed. The latter has 14 clients, including Gorgon LNG Project (Chevron Exxon Mobil & Shell), Carnegie Corporation, Pacific Industrial Company, and Fircroft Australia.Found on list
Even NSW Nick Greiner Liberal Government minister, Mike Yabsley, director of Government Relations Australia Advisory Pty Ltd (GRAA), can be found on the list. Another GRAA director is former Hawke Government minister, John Dawkins.
By early 2002 - that is, just before Burke and Grill became fully operational as WA's most successful lobbyists - MPs and parliamentary officers noticed that Parliament House was being increasingly frequented by lobbyists who were either former MPs or political staffers.
I was alerted to this and urged to investigate and write about this growing trend, which I did. As early as May 2002, I wrote a column warning that the major undesirable feature of WA lobbying was that it was clandestine. I said: "Voters get no insight into precisely what they and their clients are up to.
"For that reason it's time all lobbyists were required to be registered and their activities laid open to voters and, especially, the press. Until such disclosure is adopted, reading and listening to our media on politics will remain largely an enjoyable waste of time."
This, of course, echoed what US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of America's shrewdest behind-closed-doors operators, once said: "Nothing just happens in politics. If something happens, you can be sure it was planned that way."
But, as former Whitlam Government staffer and later academic, the late Professor Clem Lloyd, pointed out in his study of Canberra lobbying that appears in Peter Cullen's path-finding book, No is Not an Answer - Lobbying for Success
(1991), lobbying is integral to governance.
"The Old and New Testaments are studded with instances of pressure groups, lobbyists, professional advocates, and the petitioning of potentates," Lloyd wrote.
"The courts of European monarchs, such as Henry VIII and Louis XIV, were designed at least partly to receive the petitioning, importunity and beseeching of the government.
"And to this day 'friends at court' remain a fundamental asset of the lobbyists in attracting clients."
I consequently stressed that banning lobbying or lobbyists was shortsighted. Despite this, Premier Gallop banned Burke and Grill from dealing with any of his ministers.
I decided that American-style registration, with its stringent disclosure requirements, was the preferable path.
"All WA lobbyists should register annually," I wrote.
"Anyone lobbying and not registered at an 'office of lobbying' should be denied access to ministers and their staffers, and legislators.
"Every six months, all lobbyists should submit detailed descriptions of which clients they worked for, what they were paid, and whom they had lobbied. Those hiring lobbyists should submit similar returns listing the same details.
"All ministers, MPs, senior policy public servants and ministerial staffers should submit to the office monthly returns naming who had lobbied them and what was discussed.
"All these reports should be open to the public, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday."
However, I wasn't the only one to make such recommendations.
WA Independent Liberal MP, Dr Liz Constable, actually tabled a bill in the WA state parliament with similar registration and disclosure requirements.
Like me, she was also ignored by Gallop and McGinty.
Had the recommendation for transparency in lobbying been acted upon by Gallop, and later by Carpenter, Burke and Grill could today be legitimately lobbying; WA taxpayers would be $4 million better off; three ministerial careers would not have been destroyed; the public could easily check what was happening behind the scenes any time that any voter chose.
Anyone failing to fully and accurately disclose his or her lobbying would be disqualified from working as a lobbyist for life and confronted with a hefty fine of $100,000 or more.
Because Gallop and McGinty failed to adopt a full disclosure American-style approach McGinty found himself in the invidious position of actually having to authorise CCC's undercover agents to wiretap Burke and Grill.
Yet, after all that and the Smiths Beach inquiry, WA is still without a lobbyists' register with full disclosure requirements. This means that what Burke and Grill allegedly did can continue to be done by those presently with their names on the Carpenter Government's ineffectual lobbyists' list.- Joseph Poprzeczny is a freelance Western Australian journalist.