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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1515

Senator RONALDSON (3:58 PM) —While the opposition broadly support the thrust of both the Lobbying Code of Conduct and the register of interests, we are deeply cynical about both the stated reasons for the code and the timing of its release today. I would like to make some general comments about the code and then get to the code specifically. The Lobbying Code of Conduct released today by the government will not stop the Brian Burkes of this world or other Labor identities from breaking the rules. Labor broke the old rules and Labor will break these new rules. The bottom line is this code will not stop the sorts of problems we have seen arise with former Western Australian Premier Brian Burke or the types of abuses we have read about in the media regarding Labor Party figures and the Wollongong council sex and bribe scandal. Let us not forget that we are only having this debate today for one reason: a string of problems involving Labor identities turned lobbyists who have overstepped the mark in their dealings with both local Labor councillors and state and federal Labor MPs.

I would now like to turn to the code. This code, like the draft, still gives the cabinet secretary unfettered power under section 10.3 to exercise absolute discretion to not register or remove a lobbyist from the register. The minister now defends this by saying that he expects ‘this power will be used in exceptional circumstances only’. Giving yourself complete and unaccountable power with the caveat that you do not expect to use it very much is to use words that should fill everyone involved in this matter with both fear and trepidation. It is still a case of all roads leading to the Special Minister of State and Prime Minister Rudd.

The Rudd government has somewhat addressed the lack of recourse for those who are struck off or denied joining the register but only after the issue was exposed by the opposition. The process by which the cabinet secretary contacts a lobbyist or individual and discusses a potential breach is done in secret. Our question is: where is the accountability in that change?

Also of great concern to the coalition is that this code does not even once mention unions. Unions are not only aggressive campaigners in federal elections but also the most aggressive lobbyists in politics. Their power and influence over Labor governments is not just confined to visitations in ministerial offices. Last Australia Day, representatives of the MUA enjoyed the hospitality of the Prime Minister at the Lodge. Who knows what was discussed and what was agreed. There certainly would not have been any minutes kept of the discussions that day.

In this code, unions come under part (f) of the description of ‘lobbyist’ in section 3 and, remarkably, are therefore exempted from this code. Everyone agrees that unions have the right to put their case forward on policy issues and be walking the corridors of Parliament House, but this exemption for unions, combined with the tens of millions of dollars they donate to the Labor Party, raises serious questions about how effective this code will be in the real world. The omission of unions from this code is breathtaking but, despite this flaw being pointed out by the coalition to Prime Minister Rudd, he has chosen to ignore this advice and persisted with giving unions special privileges. The community will quite rightly ask the rhetorical question: ‘Why are unions being given special privileges in this matter?’ If this code is to have any credibility it simply must deal with the issue of lobbying by union officials.

Like the draft code, this code provides no penalties for government representatives who breach the code. It also still fails to account for the realities of government. What constitutes an oral communication under section 3? Does a chance meeting at the Parliament House coffee shop ‘Aussie’s’ fall under this definition? What happens if a lobbyist has a chance conversation with a ministerial staffer out of sitting hours who is unaware of their engagement as a lobbyist? The provisions of this code certainly will not stop the sort of clandestine meetings we have read about in the media involving the likes of Brian Burke or the types of activities of those Labor figures on the Wollongong Council.

This code, like its predecessor draft, does not properly deal with conflicts of interest or even mention the conflicts relating to spouses or close relatives. While I am sure it is not its intention, in practical terms this code may exempt Prime Minister Rudd’s chief of staff, whose wife is a senior lobbyist. Another practical flaw with this code which may lead to ministerial personnel problems down the track is the prohibition on ministerial staffers taking jobs in the private sector in an area in which they had official dealings. There is no definition of ‘official dealings’. Who makes that decision? Is it the Prime Minister? Is it the Special Minister of State?

While the provision of section 7.1 for former ministers appears reasonable, the prohibition under section 7.2 affecting current Labor ministerial staffers does not appear to take into account situations where they may lose their jobs under reshuffles or the like. In practical terms, this provision appears to be totally unfair. To take a practical example, what happens in a situation where, hypothetically, Treasurer Wayne Swan loses the Treasury portfolio in a reshuffle? What happens to his economic advisers? Under this code there are restrictions on what future jobs they can take. Surely this is a disincentive for potential budding ministerial staffers to enter the political fray. This provision can only have long-term consequences for the quality of staff that ministers can recruit.

Another flaw in this code is that, by exempting companies who lobby directly, there is nothing to stop the Brian Burkes of this world working as employees for a company part-time. It exempts companies who put a former politician on their board of directors for lobbying purposes. It encourages companies to hide their lobbying activities by doing it directly—that is, outside the code—and it discourages an open and transparent understanding of lobbying.

The register requires lobbyists to list all the clients they are lobbying on behalf of. Some would say that is fair enough. But what happens in the circumstances where the Hawker Brittons of this world are in Prime Minister Rudd’s office for a political and strategy briefing and they happen to mention one of their clients or an issue affecting one of their clients? The code does not cover that situation.

I am pleased that Senator Faulkner took on board the coalition’s concerns about the draft code effectively giving Labor law firms a special deal. As the coalition argued on the day the draft was released, by giving lawyers a special exemption we would be moving towards the American model, where most lobbyists are registered as law firms, gaining their clients special lawyer-client legal privilege. Fortunately the coalition was successful in forcing that change.

Finally and importantly, why is this very important debate occurring just hours before the Prime Minister’s first budget? Here is a new government, where Prime Minister Rudd cynically talks about openness, accountability and transparency, and they are dropping this controversial code in the afternoon before the budget so that it gets lost in tomorrow’s newspapers. It is a tactic classically out of an episode of the West Wing. The fact is the Prime Minister wants this debate, which is essentially about the cultural problems of the Labor Party, to be buried under an avalanche of media reports about the budget. It may be a smart short-term political tactic but it has all the characteristics of a government that, in its infancy, is already successfully avoiding accountability. There is no justification, as Senator Bob Brown said, for this matter to be raised today. This is an issue that should not be lost in tomorrow’s budget papers. This is an issue that deserved greater transparency, greater discussion and the ability for the media to be commenting on this matter. They will not comment on this because they will be commenting on the budget. This is not openness. This is not transparency. As I said earlier, we broadly support the thrust of this; we are deeply cynical about both its rationale and the timing of its release.