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Opening the book to all

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

In Britain, the appointment diaries of ministers are available so we know who's talking to them. Why not here?

Illustration by Matt Adams.

Illustration by Matt Adams.

The British government, at that stage of life when questions get asked about improper influence behind the scenes, not least by Rupert Murdoch, is looking at a scheme for registering lobbyists, in part on the Australian model.

They hardly need bother. Whether by accident or design, they are already well ahead of what is done in Australia, and, though that is clearly inadequate, nothing in prospect here could be called reform.

On the website of Prime Minister David Cameron, one can find far more information about the practical workings of government in Britain than one will find from the Gillard website. Yet we have had Freedom of Information laws, notionally stronger ones, for 20 years longer.

A window on number10.gov.uk is called ''transparency''. It gives a choice of five sets of data. The first involves business plans for every government department, as well as (somewhat spin-doctored) efforts to describe progress with each. Then there's a ''who does what in Whitehall list'' - a combination organisational structure and government directory many times more useful and accessible than the Commonwealth's computerised GOLD system which has replaced the old useful Directory. There's a file - ''government contracts in full,'' updated regularly, sorted by department, and another, called ''how your money is spent'', itemising all financial transactions over £500. And a useful gate to accessing reports, and government data.

There's another: ''who ministers are meeting''. It lists the diary appointments of all British ministers, and of their senior minders, and of their department heads and senior executive officers. It also lists meetings with journalists, and their organisations. Mostly, it gives some clue about the nature of the discussions (David Cameron, October, met with Joe Lewis to discuss redevelopment of Tottenham Hotspur stadium, or, Lockheed Martin, to discuss Warrior upgrade program.) In some case, little lobbying is said to have occurred: Archbishop of Canterbury, general discussion or Bank of England, discussion of economic outlook.

Also in the same lists are records of gifts received, and of their fate, of official dinners and functions attended, and of overseas travel, including records of the number of accompanying officials, and the cost. Cameron's attendance at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Perth last year, with 23 officials and a chartered aircraft, cost, for example, something less than £821,000.

It is not impossible, under FOI, to get access to a ministerial appointments diary in Australia, but it is by no means routine, and one cannot expect much help from the office of the Information Commissioner, who seems to think that anything that can be called ''political' (or perhaps ''sensitive'') ought to be exempt. Likewise, material and travel, gifts and official expenditure is also ultimately available here, but not in so readily accessible a form, or generally as quickly.

Politicians in both Britain and Australia are in low odour, if for somewhat different reasons. In both jurisdictions, however, there are oft expressed concerns that particular groups, interests and lobbies have undue influence over politicians, and that relationships between ministers, officials and representatives of those interests - many of whom are exploiting their backgrounds in party politics, inside knowledge of the ''system'' and personal acquaintances with decision makers - are less than transparent.

Australia, under Kevin Rudd, set up a register of lobbyists, which included a code of conduct. People who ''lobbied'' for a living had to register, or would not be allowed to see ministers and officials. But the scheme has a major weakness: lobbying was defined to incorporate only those who lobbied for third parties for a living, and lawyers and accountants acting for clients were also not included. This means that major businesses wanting influence with government - such as gambling baron James Packer do not have to register ex-politicians and minders working for him, and that their activities on his behalf are not necessarily called ''lobbying.'' Likewise with the activities of many business associations, corporations such as BHP which have in-house people dealing with government relations, or people doing their urging, wheeling and requests for special favours, dispensations, or, in some cases the exercise in their favour of valuable discretions, through lawyers.

Many regard the business of lobbying as essentially suspicious and discreditable, practised by shady people operating by a mixture of bribes and threats. Some point to the activities of the US lobbying industry, and the use of corruption, influence and favours encouraged by the political action committees, campaign donations and pressure groups.

In general that is unfair. Lobbyists are generally quite honourable and decent, and their primary tasks perfectly defensible. They watch governments on behalf of identified clients, alerting them if anything happening is likely to affect their interests. They seek to represent their clients' interests, whether directly, by themselves, or, more likely, by seeking appointments for their principals with relevant decision-makers. Trading from their understanding of how government works, including, often, some knowledge of the personalities of decision-makers, they give advice on the arguments which can be made, the arguments that will be advanced against them, and the arguments that will and won't work.

The public suspicion, indeed, should not be focused on them, least of all if there is a system of registration, however limited. Lobbyists are only a subset of those who have access to the minister's, or the official's ear. What the public has a right to know is who has the access - and, generally, if they are asking for the exercise of some public right, discretion or dispensation, why they have been given the access and what they have asked for. The focus should be on the official, not the lobbyist.

That some access is ''political''- and mediated through party officials - or involves the exploitation of political material, such as polls (which have often been paid for with public funds) ought be neither here nor there, if the meeting is about how public power will be exercised.

Nor must one judge such a system necessary only when one has evidence that all, or most, or even some politicians are venal, crooked, dishonest, or intent on exercising power for an improper purpose. Transparency is a check and balance in itself. It has been shown repeatedly that the propensity for wickedness by the middle class - including politicians - is a function of the prospect of being caught out. The best protection is by increasing that prospect.

For others, including the criminal classes, the calculus also involves the severity of the punishment if one is caught. For the official, the very disgrace of fraud or dishonesty is or ought to be enough to remove them from public life.

Let's put more pressure on politicians. After all, as some authoritarian politicians might say (for example, of terrorism legislation) innocent politicians have nothing to fear.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large.

2 comments so far

  • Jack,
    Spot on, as usual. Our approach is laughably light touch. A parliamentary committee last year found the registration system for lobbyists was working wonderfully well, thank you, and the minister responsible, Gary Gray, nodded furiously in agreement.

    You are a bit tough on the Information Commissioner-the law rather than what he thinks was the culprit in this case. Minister's documents are subject to FOI only if information relates to the affairs of an agency. Anything else-like who the PM or other ministers talk to or correspond with is outside scope. Oh for a prod to conscience, such as a minister for integrity!

    Come to think of it shouldn't they all have that as a sub-title?

    Commenter
    Peter Timmins
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 18, 2012, 2:11PM
    • Great article raising an important issue, especially for those of us concerned about the power of vested economic interests in influencing public policy. With the fading of any real crusading Australian journalism, the lack of an Australian public interest movement (a la US groups like Common Cause), and the inexcusable languishing of Mr Integrity (John Faulkner) on the back benches, I despair at the chances of having issues such as this appropriately addressed. Hope I'm wrong.

      Commenter
      Karina
      Location
      Belconnen
      Date and time
      July 18, 2012, 9:43PM

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