Lobbying gets an orange pass

| May 10, 2024

Lobbying is at the heart of government. Who has access to and influence over key government officials shapes the decisions governments make – and how they make them.

The ability to influence government is certainly essential to democratic politics. Yet how lobbying occurs federally undermines Australia’s democracy.

This lobbying is typically shrouded in secrecy. Bound up with such secrecy is unfair access for “insider” groups, especially powerful commercial interests. Such secrecy and unfairness risk encouraging corruption, particularly quid pro quo deals between government decision-makers and lobbyists.

The parlous state of federal lobbying regulation can take much of the blame for this. On May 7, the Senate Finance and Public Administration handed down a report highlighting the inadequacies of this regulation. According to the report, Commonwealth lobbying regulations have not kept pace with either developments in the lobbying landscape or the makeup of the parliament.

However, disappointingly, the report stops short of decisive recommendations in line with its findings.

The Lobbying Code of Conduct

The key regulation examined by the Senate report was the federal Lobbying Code of Conduct. The code and its register are government policies administered by the Attorney-General’s Department. They apply only to commercial lobbyists (but not in-house lobbyists, lobbyists who act on behalf of their employers).

The report concludes that federal lobbying regulation has “not kept pace with best-practice developments in other jurisdictions” and “could be usefully amended to improve its effectiveness”.

It also found strong justification for strengthening the code in key ways. On including in-house lobbyists, it said:

“[…] lobbying activity that is neither subject to the Code nor captured on the Register is not sufficiently transparent, and that efforts must be made to extend the coverage of the Code […] The committee therefore recommends that the definition of lobbyists under the Lobbying Code of Conduct be expanded to capture a broader range of actors.”

On calls to legislate the code, the report positively notes “the widespread experience with legislated schemes both within Australia and internationally”.

On independent administration of the code, it concludes this would remove

“the real or perceived conflict of interest that exists under the current regulatory arrangements where the executive government is responsible for regulating its own relationships.”

In a disappointing twist, the report fails to recommend that the code be strengthened in these ways. It says this is due to “the narrow field of views heard by the committee during the hearing and the need to better understand a broader perspective”.

Rather, it recommends the Australian government commission an independent review to consider strengthening the code in the ways proposed.

Parliament House ‘orange’ passes

The report examines whether there should be disclosure of the list of holders of “orange” passes to Australian Parliament House (APH). These are sponsored passes issued on the basis that the holders have “a significant and regular business” requirement for unescorted access to Parliament House.

The report found “the process for obtaining a sponsored pass is not entirely transparent”. It said “very little is known about the 1,977 sponsored passholders that have a significant and regular business requirement to access APH”. Current regulatory arrangements “make it impossible to ascertain the scale of lobbyist access to APH”.

Rather than seeking to penetrate this opaqueness, the report recommended exploration of “regulatory interoperability” between the Lobbying Code of Conduct and the APH access system.

Emphasising that “the ‘orange pass’ is not a lobbyist pass”, it fell back on its “another review” recommendation. This was on the grounds that “the most effective accountability and transparency measures relate to legislating a properly representative Lobbying Code of Conduct”.

Ministerial diaries

The report noted that publication of ministerial diaries is required in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. It recognised that:

“visibility over diaries can provide a valuable counter reference point to the information available on lobbyist registers, allowing for a comparison of what is disclosed on both platforms and analysis of how these meetings may align with legislative and regulatory changes and the awarding of government contracts.”

However, it resists recommending publication of ministerial diaries based on a non sequitur: should the publication requirements extend to all parliamentarians, there would need to be fuller consideration of “matters of parliamentary privilege”.

Reforming political ‘donations’

A striking omission from the report is its neglect of the intimate link between lobbying and political contributions. This matters because companies pay thousands of dollars to attend fund-raising events where they can lobby ministers and shadow ministers and lobbying groups annually make millions of dollars in political donations.

We can understand the frustration of Senator David Pocock when he says in his dissenting report:

“We know the problems; the committee was given the solutions. It’s time to get on with the job of fixing the broken system that regulates the conduct and access of federal lobbyists.”

Equally understandable is the frustration of Special Minister of State Don Farrell at a bill sponsored by Pocock that proposes a $1.5 million “mega-donor” cap on political donations with no campaign spending caps. This is seemingly aimed at protecting Climate 200’s funding operations.

Perhaps the Senate report on lobbying can prompt a reset – a setting aside of mutual frustration – and pave the way for robust and integrated reforms of lobbying and political funding.

This article was published by The Conversation.