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Explainer

It’s time to shine a light on the shady world of political lobbying

The background

In early December 2023, Senator David Pocock successfully moved a motion to commence an inquiry into professional lobbying.

The Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee will look into access to Australian Parliament House by lobbyists.

The Committee has received public submissions and is set to release the inquiry findings in a report on the 30th April 2024.

What is lobbying?

Lobbying is the act of communicating with a public official to influence their decision-making. It is a legitimate and important part of a representative democracy that can help parliamentarians and public officials make better decisions by allowing them to hear different viewpoints on matters of public interest.

Types of lobbyists

In Australia, there are two types of lobbyists: in-house and third-party.

An in-house lobbyist is someone lobbying on behalf of their employer or group. For example, this might be someone working in-house at a company like WestFarmers who is trying to influence policy on behalf of their employer, Wesfarmers.

A third-party lobbyist is a professional lobbyist that anyone can hire. They may work for a professional lobbying firm and represent various clients.

Regulation of professional lobbying is weak

In the last decade, political lobbying has become a highly professionalised, lucrative, multi-billion-dollar-a-year business dominated by big industry. While lobbying is an important part of a functioning democracy, the current lack of regulation and transparency leads to a real risk of corruption and disproportionate influence.

Professional lobbyists are paid for their work trying to influence decision-makers and have access to special orange passes that allow them to walk the halls of Parliament House in Canberra. This same level of access is not afforded to regular voters.

Weak disclosure laws mean that harmful industries can lobby in secret and apparent instances of undue influence are not exposed. At the very least, lobbying activities must be made transparent so that the public knows who is meeting with our decision-makers.

Alcohol industry
Over the past 10 years the alcohol lobby has pushed to delay the implementation of pregnancy warning labels on alcohol packaging.¹

Fossil fuels
For decades, lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry have worked hard to embed themselves deep within the federal bureaucracy in an attempt to influence the national government’s stance on climate change. During the Howard era, when they were so influential they earned the nickname “Greenhouse Mafia”, lobbyists allegedly had direct access to the Prime Minister. They were even brought into government departments to craft cabinet submissions and ministerial briefings.²

Tobacco
In 2018/19, when the government was starting to consider a ban on e-cigarettes and nicotine vapes, tobacco giant Phillip Morris ramped up its lobbying efforts, sending meeting requests to the Prime Minister, Health Minister and many others. Next, Phillip Morris poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the PR firm Australian Retailers Association, which set up a new lobbying arm called the Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association. Together, they targeted backbenchers to pressure the government to support a Senate Inquiry into the role of e-cigarettes in tobacco harm reduction.²

Gambling
A delve into the Federal Register of Lobbyists shows that Crown, Tabcorp, and the Australian Hotels Association all contract third-party lobbying firms to do bidding on their behalf. What isn’t disclosed on the register is the activities of the permanent lobbyists on staff at gambling bodies ClubsNSW and Clubs Australia, which have a strong presence in Canberra.³

Lack of transparency

A publicly available lobbying register exists – however, it tells us very little. Under current regulation, only third-party lobbyists, which is about 20% of all lobbyists, must report on the Australian Government Register of Lobbyists. This means that the operations of 80% of the remaining lobbying population are completely hidden from the public. Additionally, the third-party lobbyists that do have to log their activities on the public Register are only required to disclose the names and contact details of the clients they represent. The Register does not require them to disclose who they are meeting, how often, or what they are meeting about.

The Register’s requirements should be expanded to include all types of lobbyists so that in-house lobbyists have to register alongside third-party lobbyists. The Register should also show who is meeting whom, when, how often and why.

To improve transparency, Ministers should also be required to publish the diaries of who they’re meeting with. Ministers have been publishing their diaries in QLD and NSW for ten years, and it’s been a requirement in the ACT since 2018.

Having Ministers publish their diaries in a timely manner allows journalists and members of the public to scrutinise who key decision-makers are and aren’t meeting with and how this might influence key policy outcomes. For example, in 2016 the NSW government overturned a ban on greyhound racing. Because of NSW’s stronger transparency laws, the public could see that senior ministers met with the racing industry many times, but no animal rights groups or supporters.⁴ We are completely in the dark about similar decisions made at federal level.

A more recent example presents another compelling case for greater transparency. At the end of 2023, new Freedom of Information documents revealed that Communications Minister Michelle Rowland and her office had conducted 66 secret meetings regarding a proposal to ban gambling advertising. The majority of these meetings were with pro-gambling advertising or sports companies like Racing Vic, Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, Sportsbet and AFL – many of whom chose not to engage in public consultations on this issue.⁵ If minister’s diaries were published, and the lobbying register improved, it wouldn’t take the time consuming research and Freedom of Information request process to find out this public interest information.

Independent journalist Michael West on lobbying and the negotiations around gambling advertising.

Professional lobbying should be made more transparent by extending the Federal Register of Lobbyists to include in-house lobbyists, requiring lobbyists to disclose their lobbying activity regularly and requiring Ministers to publish their diaries.

The ‘revolving door’

A 2018 analysis run by the Guardian found that more than half of federal lobbyists in Australia have previously worked for government or major political parties. Without proper checks in place, the revolving door between government and lobbying jobs can lead to a culture that places disproportionate value on the role of networking and incentivises politicians, public servants and ministerial advisors to act in the interest of their future job prospects, rather than making decisions in the public interest. It additionally creates a web of relationships where powerful industries are afforded greater access to decision-makers than voters.

In September last year, it was announced that the Chief of Staff to Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neill had accepted a job with international arms manufacturer Thales. Greens Senator David Shoebridge criticised the move, saying, “No cooling off period, literally walking out of being chief of staff one day, and being straight into being a government relations adviser for a major multinational arms manufacturer the next day.”⁷

According to the Lobbying Code of Conduct, Ministers are required to undertake that, for 18 months after ceasing to be a Minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as Minister in their last 18-months in office, and similar restrictions apply to parliamentary secretaries. However, these rules are not enforced in practice, regardless of being a third-party or in-house lobbyist. The time period and provisions around political staff moving into lobbying roles should be extended and properly enforced by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

Extending the ‘cooling-off’ period for former politicians and governments moving into lobbying roles to 3 years will help address the risk of undue influence.

¹ https://movendi.ngo/news/2021/12/06/australia-alcohol-lobby-pushes-to-weaken-public-health-again/

² https://www.hrlc.org.au/reports-news-commentary/2022/1/31/selling-out-how-powerful-industries-corrupt-our-democracy

³ https://www.industryinsight.info/what-to-look-out-for-2

https://grattan.edu.au/report/whos-in-the-room/

⁵ https://michaelwest.com.au/murphy-report-gambling-reform-delayed-by-lobbyists/

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/sep/16/in-the-family-majority-of-australias-lobbyists-are-former-political-insiders

⁷ https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/sep/14/home-affairs-ministers-chief-of-staff-takes-job-with-arms-manufacturer-thales-senate-told