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Thursday, 1 March 2012
Page: 1367

Senator RYAN (Victoria) (12:10): I present the report of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on the operation of the Lobbying Code of Conduct and the Lobbyist Register, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator RYAN: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

This is an important inquiry following up on an earlier report of the committee into the establishment of the code in 2008. I was part of that inquiry, having become a member of this place halfway through the conduct of that inquiry. The government subsequently made changes to the operation of the code, mainly around the nomination of former government representatives by lobbyists who are covered by the code and by moving reporting into a twice-yearly time frame.

Importantly, this inquiry was an opportunity to dispel some of the myths propagated by some regarding lobbying and government relations as an industry and a sector, for I think it is in the political interests of some to cry foul regarding legitimate contact between citizens, business and government and political representatives. No evidence was presented to the committee regarding corrupt practices in Australia, and I think that is particularly important to note.

There are some, however, who seem to have a vested interest in increasing the regulation of contact between business organisations and their political repre­sentatives; yet it appears that these are based on experiences in other jurisdictions, notably the United States, partly in some of our own states, and also in places like Canada. No evidence was provided that this is actually required in Australia today at the Commonwealth level. Indeed, one of the justifications of some who propose additional regulation is simply that other nations are doing it.

I put to the Senate that regulatory creep without need or justification in other jurisdictions is not a justification for it happening here. For example, in the United States, an example oft quoted by the advocates of further regulation, congressmen and senators have an appropriations power that members of the House of Representatives and senators lack under our Constitution. This is a profound difference in political arrangements and it provides for a much greater opportunity for favours to be granted or for unsavoury practices to develop.

Similarly, another justification is that states in Australia are introducing such regimes. These reflect practices in the states, legal regimes they have established and, indeed, political cultures in these jurisdictions. Again, here, regulatory burdens imposed in one place do not necessarily fit the needs of another. Simply because one or another of our states is acting in a certain fashion does not require that to be undertaken at the Commonwealth level.

As for the cry that we need national uniformity in this regard, I can only refer to Menzies' famous phrase about the curse of uniformity. There is absolutely no reason why states cannot impose their own rules as they see fit. Indeed, in a federation that is something we should aspire to. National uniformity in this case—and this is very important—would not reduce the regulatory cost on this sector. National uniformity is being proposed to increase the regulatory burden without justification.

While most submitters who proposed increased regulation of this space are undoubtedly motivated by good causes, as with all higher causes this sometimes leads to extreme outcomes. A couple of examples did concern me. I was particularly concerned by proposals to require meetings with all members of parliament to be disclosed when they were meeting with someone who was determined to be lobbying on a particular activity. This proposal included details of disclosure of the conversations. There must remain an element of privacy for members of parliament and senators to consult with constituents including businesses and organisations. To do otherwise would simply allow motives to be assigned to meetings that took place and to the actions of members and, indeed, would empower the vilification of organisations, members of this place and people who simply wish to meet with their MPs to discuss their concerns. Furthermore, the issue of what is a constituent issue versus what is lobbying, which was discussed in the committee hearing, will remain a sore point because no clear criteria were provided. When does dealing with an issue become lobbying? As politicians we are judged by our actions—by how we vote in this place and by what we say to the public at election time and in between elections. This proposal strikes me as nothing less than an attempt to make a window into men's souls, to allow others to try to assign motives to our actions regardless of what we may think they are. We should be judged on our actions in this place, not be asked to breach what are in some cases profoundly private discussions and allow others to assign motives as they see fit.

This report outlines the committee's view that it is satisfied with the operation of the code at the moment. We did ask some questions and we have asked the department to consider whether there could be a provision on the code website for announcement of breaches of the code, and that is under consideration. The code meets its objectives, and those objectives are to allow public knowledge about whom the third-party lobbyists are actively working on behalf of and to ensure those people in government who meet with people lobbying on behalf of someone else know what that person is meeting them about. I have been a lobbyist in a past life, to use the pejorative phrase. It was always clear whom I was representing because it was on my business card and was provided to the person I made the appointment with. The aim of this code was actually to allow third-party lobbyists guarantees and some transparency about whom they were representing. The code does that.

There are some other comments in this report from other parties that reflect some of the concerns that I raised which the committee has disagreed with. The idea that we would propose to regulate everyone who contacts government, whether they be a charitable organisation, a religious organisation or an individual business, I find quite abhorrent. The idea that there would be disclosure of the content of meetings between members of parliament and constituents against the wishes of both I find profoundly concerning. There needs to be a degree of privacy.

The proposal of the Australian Greens would require all bodies corporate, unincorporated associations, religious organisations and charitable trusts, as well as companies that meet with government to lobby, whatever that term may mean, to register. The department advised us that that would lead to over 5,000 people having to register. That would bring with it a substantial cost. At no time was there any case established that this is required in Australia. At no time were there examples of corrupt practices at the Commonwealth level. Pejorative phrases were thrown around about the influence of particular companies, but for those who, for example, might support a carbon tax or a mining tax—as opposed to people who, like me, oppose both—my position has been made clear in this place and outside. Why should other people be able to try to assign motives to that simply because of whom I met with?

Furthermore, this would introduce a huge level of complexity about what constitutes lobbying, and there are no criteria for this in other regimes. Dr David Solomon, whose motives I do not impugn whatsoever—he is quite a fine former journalist and author; I own a few of his books—put the view that it would just have to be a judgment. If a business comes to see you about a tax issue, and the second half of the meeting might be about consideration of changing a particular tax regime, when does the meeting move from a constituent issue to lobbying? No criteria are provided around that. Yet again we have a regulatory urge in search of a purpose and in search of a need.

The committee report wholly outlines why this code is operating as it was intended and why there does not need to be any further regulation as to this. Australia is a clean country by world standards. It has stayed that way. We have the institutions to protect it and there is no need for further regulation.