Limits to reining in the lobbyists

18 Jan 2008

The government's rule changes are a good idea, but we should be very clear about the limits of both initiatives, writes JOHN WARHURST.

THE Rudd government has announced that it will be making life harder for lobbyists but easier for non-hovernment organisations. It will increase regulation of lobbyists and decrease regulation of NGOs. The two announcements have been made separately, the former by the special minister of state, Senator John Faulkner, and the latter by the acting prime minister, Julia Gillard, on behalf of herself and the minister for families, housing and community services, Jenny Macklin. Consequently they have been reported separately as if they bore no relationship to one another.

But they do. Lobbyists and NGOs are very closely related. Lobbyists work for NGOs and NGOs lobby. The Coalition parties are often suspicious of the influence of so-called NGOs, like the Australian Council of Social Services and the Australian Conservation Foundation. Labor tends to be suspicious of the business lobby and the independent lobbyists who work for them. But the two are really inseparable. Many organisations want to lobby and engage in public debate. Public debate can be a form of lobbying.

Lobbying has both closed and open connotations. Lobbying can be described as insider work; that is, gaining private access to government. NGOs often rely on outsider work, that is, public campaigning through speaking out. Those who seek to influence government often try to do both. Advocates of each would argue that they make for better democracy and public policy. Both are ways of the community communicating better with government.

Both lobbying and NGOs have a history under the Howard government. That history is necessary for understanding Labor’s initiatives.

Shortly after the Howard government took office, it abolished the previous Labor government’s lobbyist registration scheme. Since then there has been no federal government regulation of lobbyists, a fact that became obvious last year when the Brian Burke affair surfaced in Western Australia. Burke became the unwanted poster-boy for the lobbying industry. That affair is still being played out and Burke’s associate, Julian Grill, is about to stand trial for lying to the WA Crime and Corruption Commission.

But Labor’s registration scheme was a dead letter long before 1996, and though Mark Latham promised a new scheme in 2004 the state Labor Governments have been equally lukewarm about lobbying registration. It is a difficult policy area. The goals of regulation of lobbying are often unclear and this makes good public policy, as distinct from public relations, difficult to implement.

The story of the Howard government’s fractured relations with NGOs, especially welfare, health, community and women’s organisations, has been told in various publications since 2004 by the Australia Institute. The insitute’s Clive Hamilton, Sarah Maddison and others have written under the general theme of silencing dissent. Many NGOs felt battered and bruised by the Howard government. A particular grievance has been the practice of constraining public comment by those in receipt of government funding of service delivery. Contracts have been written and enforced in this way.

The Rudd Government now wants to change things. As far as lobbyists are concerned it will build on the newly announced rules for ministerial contact with lobbyists. These rules lay out the general themes likely to be the basis for the Register of Lobbyists, such the avoidance of a conflict between public duty and private interest. Rudd knows the lobbying game, of course, because his brother is a lobbyist. The Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, knows the game too, because as former president of the Australian Medical Association he was one himself.

As far as NGOs are concerned all existing service contracts will be reviewed and departments will be instructed to remove any references preventing NGOs from criticising the government. According to Gillard, the new Government believes encouraging debate is much better than imposing silence. Dissent in the form of public debate will tolerated. The time will come, however, as it does for all governments, that public dissent will prove highly irritating to the Rudd Government. When that happens Labor’s free speech bona fides will be really tested.

Democracy thrives on transparency and open government. True democracy also depends on a relatively even playing field for those who want to influence government policy.

Transparency and an even playing field are not the same thing however. Transparency is somewhat easier to achieve, though still difficult. But open government has its limits. If the new Register of Lobbyists is to achieve transparency it must be as broad as possible. Its scope must include business associations and leaders, NGOs, trade unions, churches and independent fee for service lobbyists. Indeed it should include anyone trying to influence government policy. It should also include lobbying not just of ministers but also of public servants and parliamentarians. That is a big ask and the task is made more difficult by the fact much lobbying runs side by side with the normal operation of parliamentary government in which parliamentarians should represent constituents interests.

An even playing field is even harder to achieve. The spirit behind returning the community sectors right to criticise government is that all voices should be heard. But that is not the same thing as giving all voices equal weight. All governments play favourites. Some ideas are welcomed while others are not. Having a say is not much good if your opinions are disregarded.

No amount of regulating the lobbying industry and no amount of increasing free speech for the NGO sector will transform the way interests and industries throw their weight around. The steps envisaged are good ideas. But the community should be very clear about the realistic limits of both initiatives. •

John Warhurst is Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times.

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