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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1514

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (3:49 PM) —While the Greens welcome the Register of Lobbyists and the Lobbying Code of Conduct, this is way short of what is required to protect the interests of the public and the interests of democracy in our country in an age when vested interests put enormous pressure onto the elected representatives of office and, in particular, onto parliaments.

I give the example of the Sydney Morning Herald article on Saturday which mooted the line-up of coal industry executives who are currently lobbying the minister for matters related to climate change, Senator Penny Wong. The fact is that there is an open door to the coal industry but there is not an open door to community interests who may be affected by government policy when it comes to the huge range of climate change issues. I think there should be much greater openness about that, and maybe this will open the door.

I point to a question that I put to Senator Wong in estimates. I asked: ‘Since the election, on which occasions has the minister met representatives of the coal industry and what was discussed?’ I got the answer: ‘The minister is determined to meet as many individuals as possible, both formally and informally, in her portfolio. Generally meetings have been either held with the expectation of confidentiality or on the public record.’ In other words, ‘I am not going to tell you.’ I will be interested to see what a non-legislated Register of Lobbyists and a non-legislated Lobbying Code of Conduct will do about that.

The problem with Senator Faulkner’s proposals, firstly, is that they are not legislated; they ought to be. Secondly, they apply to ministers and perhaps, in some other circumstances, backbenchers of the government, though that is not clear, rather than to all members of parliament. Thirdly, they apply to some lobbyists but not all lobbyists. The minister has just given the example of public relations groups. The coal industry, the logging industry and the mining industry come to the fore with their big edifices here in Canberra, working as public relations officers—a prodigious lobby, unseen by the public in this place—with presumably a loophole a mile wide to escape the requirements that otherwise might ensure that everybody knows when they see ministers and when they do not and whether they are complying with the code of conduct.

This code should be legislated. This code should apply to all members of parliament. This code should apply to all lobbyists who see members of parliament. Let me give another big loophole. We are moving into a new balance of power situation in the Senate. All parties will be able to contribute to the balance of power. Not just the crossbench but all members of the opposition will hold the balance of power in given circumstances. I know from previously being in the position that, when it comes down to one or two people making a decision, the big end of town will be queuing up immediately to lobby them. Are Senator Fielding or Senator elect Xenophon, when he enters the Senate after 1 July, or indeed any of the five Greens, going to be under the purview of the register and the Lobbying Code of Conduct? No, they are not. We ought to be, and so should the lobbyists who come to see us. I would want to know that this Lobbying Code of Conduct applies not just in this parliament and in our electoral offices but at business lunches, fundraising dinners and everywhere where politicians are approached by lobbyists because of a sectional interest that they want to pursue.

We are here for all the people all of the time and the least we can do is let all the people all of the time know who is seeing us, what their case is and whether they have been successful. Let us be straight about it. There are thousands of lobbyists in all the great democracies. I understand there are 80,000 in Washington. They pervert and corrupt the democratic system because they get opportunities that the rest of the citizens do not. If we believe in a democracy of one person, one vote, one value, we have to go much further than this code of conduct and this register in correcting that imbalance. Senator Faulkner is quite right in that we have to hear from industries, from non-government organisations, from unions and from individuals. We are here in a representative democracy. All of us know that there are powerful interests at work which have huge sway on the body politic which the average citizen suspects but does not know about. And they change outcomes in parliaments. We ought to know about that. All of us who are involved in making decisions ought to be prepared to be totally transparent about those lobbyists who come to see us. This register and this code of conduct go nowhere near satisfying complete transparency of the forceful powers that come to sway not just on government but on all members of parliament and, indeed, as Senator Faulkner said, on the bureaucracy. There is a long way to go here.

I call on the government to legislate this code and this register; otherwise you leave it to the good people to do the right thing and to the crooks, the villains and those who want to get an advantage in the night to slide around the side. If you have not had an approach from somebody wanting an advantage and offering one in return, you have not been in this place very long. We have a long way to go beyond this. It is a very meek, tremulous and unsatisfactory start to really throwing open the power of lobbyists and the perversion that can occur in the political system—and did occur under the last government—being manifest. It is something we should go a lot further towards correcting. I congratulate Senator Faulkner for raising the issue onto the public agenda. I know it has been brought before the Senate on budget day. We have a long, long way to go before we satisfactorily ensure that the public is given total transparency when it comes to lobbyists, who are there either to represent them or to gain an advantage against their interests in the parliamentary system.