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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1517

Senator MURRAY (4:08 PM) —I am going to start with two notes of congratulation. The first is because, for a change—because it has been put aside as a form of courtesy—we have a ministerial statement to which we can actually apply a debate. It had become the practice under the previous government to drop them into the Senate with no debate, so I am glad to see a return to proper Senate consideration of a ministerial statement. Attached to that note of congratulation is of course a congratulation to the government for having put out an exposure draft two months ago, and for there being adequate time for both the media and politicians to examine this and to come forward with their final conclusion at the earliest opportunity, which is the first sitting day of the new session. I thought the previous criticism outlined was both ungracious and inaccurate.

My second note of congratulation is for the introduction of the code itself. This is an advance in accountability and integrity. This is a movement forward. It is a bit like people criticising a situation where there has been no house and a house has then been built which has not got two bathrooms, only one, and has got only one bedroom and should have two. We have got a house; now let’s build on it. That is going to be the thrust of my remarks. I welcome and I am pleased with the initiative of the government. I want to say to you: it is inadequate and it needs further additions.

When I and my party have looked at the business of lobbying and the question of how a lobbying register should be set up, we have had to address the same fundamental questions which I am sure the minister has addressed. In viewing these questions, the great thing the minister has been able to do is to overcome the natural inertia—in fact the very considerable forces that are always against these sorts of moves. It is no accident that in the previous government they did absolutely zip on this, because the powers that were opposed to a lobbyist register were very strong indeed, despite there being members within the Liberal Party who would certainly have thought it a good idea.

The basic questions you need to cover when you are dealing with something like a lobbyists register are, firstly, who should be on it, how the applications should be made, how decisions as to who should be on it are made and whether there is review of decisions. Secondly, there is the question of how it should be administered and whether that is independent or in house. Thirdly is the question of who should be affected by a lobbying register and, fourthly, what should be the means for enforcement and discipline?

Going to the third question of who should be affected by it, obviously this register covers cabinet ministers, junior ministers and parliamentary secretaries, but there is the question of caucus committee chairs and members of those caucus committees, there is the question of Senate and House committee chairs and their members, and there is the question of members and senators themselves and, as Senator Bob Brown rightly said, particularly with respect to senators who may hold the balance of power on particular issues before the Senate. There is the question of who in the public sector should be covered by it, whether it is those covered by the Financial Management and Accountability Act or the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act, and there is the question of whether the register should apply not just to the Commonwealth but to all states and territories. The basic issue of lobbyists is the same whether you are in the Commonwealth or in the states or territories.

When we think about those who lobby, sometimes those who get the most flak for being basically creatures for hire are those who lobby for anyone—in other words, they are firms whose business is lobbying. But they are no different to accountants or lawyers who accept a fee for service. In that sense, they are a business for hire. The second group are those who lobby for a specific sector or group. There are organisations representing for-profits—peak organisations such as those who lobby for miners or farmers or those sorts of people who are making a profit. There are lobby groups who lobby for specific not-for-profit sections of the community such as unions or clubs. There are lobby groups who represent churches, religions or sects.

There are those who lobby for their own corporation or entity, whether for profit or not for profit—that would be people like Telstra or big not-for-profit organisations such as, say, the Catholic health body. There are those who lobby on their own account as individuals—they have a specific problem with a specific law—and those who lobby in the public interest who have no self-interest but are attached to causes such as environmental groups or civil liberties groups.

The criticisms that surround the register that we have been presented with cover many fields. They cover the fields of independence, they cover the fields of enforceability and they cover the fields of exemption. The Australian Democrats have recognised that this is a complex and difficult issue and it is one on which we need the Senate to form a consensus and push the government for a better standard. We do not simply need to hear the sorts of criticisms without solutions that some might offer. Consequently, I have today put down in the Senate a notice of motion, a signed version of which I have submitted, which asks that the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration inquire into and report on this lobbying code of conduct by the first sitting Thursday of August 2008. I should note that, when I put it down, I had an exposure draft before me and it was titled ‘Exposure Draft’. But that of course is now replaced by the documents before us.

I have asked that the committee examine the code of conduct issued by the government and whether the proposed code of conduct is adequate to achieve its aims—in particular, (a) whether a consolidated code applying to members of both houses of the parliament and their staff as well as to ministers and their staff should be adopted by a joint resolution of the two houses; (b) whether the code should be confined to organisations representing clients or should be extended to organisations which will lobby on their own behalf; (c) whether the proposed exemptions are justified; and (d) any other relevant matters. Frankly, I am open to having those terms of reference changed, improved, except for the one which says ‘any other relevant matters’, because I do not want it to be narrowly confined. Having given the minister a lead that he may propose additions to the terms of reference if he wants to accept the notice of motion, I am happy to do that.

In concluding my remarks, I say let us be clear that this is a very significant milestone—a very significant advance. The minister and the government should be congratulated on it, but the Senate should do its work to improve and add to what we have been offered to make us a leader in the world, not just a follower, with respect to this issue.

Question agreed to.