Report of the Finance and Public Administration Committee into the Lobbyist Register, Thursday 1 March 2012
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:18): The Finance and Public Administration References Committee report before us, about lobbying, is inadequate. Lobbying is an important part of the democratic process. It is something that clearly is developing more and more and plays an integral part in the lives of most of the people who work in this place as MPs, including senators. Clearly we need a code so the public can have greater confidence in how decisions are made. That is the essence of what we are dealing with here. However, when we come to actually discuss it we see a reluctance from Labor and the coalition parties to deal with this in a substantial way. The reason that it has been raised in the first place is that periodically there are scandals and the government of the day has felt obliged to do something, but it has never been enough.
It is worth remembering that, when the Greens moved the motion to establish this inquiry—an inquiry that the committee had previously identified was needed but was never established—Labor voted against it while the coalition did vote for it. However, we then saw the reluctance of the coalition to really explore the issue thoroughly when the inquiry process began. The inquiry lasted only about 3½ hours and involved only three witnesses. We did not hear evidence from any witnesses from non-government organisations or from academics who specialise in this area. So, while I certainly appreciate the time that the three witnesses who did attend gave to the inquiry, it was not enough to do a thorough job.
Senator Ryan put up various arguments that we have heard many times from him and his colleagues. His whole argument falls over, however, when you look at Canada, where they have had a very thorough system involving a lobbyist code of conduct and a very transparent process that has worked. It has worked for the public so that the public then feel more confident in how the democratic process operates, how decisions are made, who is attempting to influence decision makers and how they are handling that. It is not about assigning motives, as suggested by the emotive language that Senator Ryan used. It is about enhancing the democratic process. That is what we should be coming together here to discuss. I imagine all senators, if they are honest, know that there is a lot of cynicism amongst the general public about how this place operates and the power and influence lobbyists have.
So we are disappointed in the report that was produced. On behalf of the Australian Greens, I submitted a dissenting report. We have called for the establishment of an office of the commission of lobbying. We believe that the oversight of lobbying should rest with such an independent body, which would report directly to the federal parliament, have auditing and investigative powers and a mandate to enforce a new lobbying act and a lobbyist code of conduct. This is about a set of standards so that lobbying can operate in a much healthier way. Such an office is badly needed and also, clearly, we need the legislative framework, as I have just set out.
We certainly need to expand on who is subject to lobbying. When people have asked me in recent times about what I have been doing and I have mentioned about the lobbyist inquiry, what has then come up is about who is regarded as a lobbyist. I find people are very shocked that the current system does not cover in-house lobbyists. People are always amazed that BHP lobbyists, who are in-house, are not covered. We have no knowledge about who they meet with or anything at all about how they operate. Therefore, that definition does need to change.
We also need to strengthen the disclosure requirements. When we come to this point I often find that people start talking about the enormous burden and difficulty of collating such information, but that does not stand up. In this day and age with so much information collated electronically it is not the burden that it is made out to be. What is more, we have a responsibility to be transparent about lobbying activities. The Australian Greens believe that the scheme should require the disclosure, in a timely manner, of when lobbying occurred, who stood to benefit, who was lobbied, the subject matter of the lobbying and the meeting outcome. That is not onerous. It replicates a system in Canada that is highly successful. Although I have not been fortunate enough to go to Canada, I imagine that it gives greater confidence in how decisions are made in their parliaments.
A further recommendation that we put forward is to enhance compliance and review. The proposed commissioner for lobbying receives and investigates complaints, then there should be a strengthening of the meaningful sanctions applying to members of parliament, public servants and lobbyists, and proper appeal rights. That is where we need to have a mechanism to ensure that the system put in place is complied with. That, certainly, should be developed.
There is also the challenging issue, which I acknowledge, that many people in this place may well be lobbyists when they leave. Senator Ryan mentioned that he was a lobbyist before he came here. So, we need to look at the post-separation employment provisions. The Australian Greens believe there should be a five-year ban on ex-ministers working as lobbyists. In some jurisdictions they already have one- or two-year separation provisions. Clearly, something is needed.
A big one, which we would argue should have been picked up by this inquiry, is success fees. We need a ban on success fees. We support such a ban and, at the moment, it is something that is having a corrupting influence on how the democratic process works because some lobbyists are paid success fees. There have been a number of scandals in recent times in the United Kingdom, and those parliaments are, I think, worse for wear for that information that has come out. Part of that has been around success fees, and it underlines why we need to change.
I want to expand on the issue of who is defined as a lobbyist. The revised scheme, as I said, should go beyond third party professional lobbyists. We can look at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption's proposed definition of a lobbying entity. They defined it as:
A body corporate, unincorporated association, partnership, trust, firm or religious or charitable organisation that engages in a Lobbying Activity on its own behalf.
That definition is from ICAC, a well-respected body within New South Wales, which has also been grappling with this issue. I wanted to read out that definition because, again, it undermines the comments made by Senator Ryan, who tried to belittle some of the attempts to reform the current system we have for lobbying in this parliament, as though the Greens had just come up with some loose definitions. That is certainly not the case, our work is well researched and we need that change. I also want to make reference to Dr David Solomon. He points out that the definition:
... echoes Canada’s definition of in house lobbyists (organisations) and in house lobbyists (corporations).
Dr Solomon has done a great deal of work in this area and is one of the authorities on it. I wanted to mention that because of the link with the Canadian experience, which certainly has become a model for many groups around the world who are attempting to have their own parliaments move on this issue.
In being frank, I am obviously disappointed with the way the inquiry went. At least we did get the inquiry up. It is an issue that needs further attention because what the committee has come forward with certainly does not advance the democratic process, does not give us more transparency on the operations of lobbyists and, clearly, highlights that there is more work to be done here.
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.