MPs shunning lobbyists, says Flegg
Former housing minister Bruce Flegg told a parliamentary committee he's aware of government ministers who walk away from meetings with stakeholders once they learn a lobbyist is involved.
Dr Flegg, who joked he had "more reason than most to contemplate" issues being discussed in a parliamentary committee meeting by Integrity Commissioner David Solomon, said ministers were avoiding meeting with lobbyists; contextually, to avoid the problems which plagued Dr Flegg and, more recently, Arts Minister Ros Bates.
"I am aware now that there are ministers, who, as soon as a lobbyist is involved will simply refuse to meet a stakeholder," Dr Flegg said.
"And quite frankly, were I still in the ministry, I would probably take that approach and I am aware of ministers who are now taking that approach, because it is so messy."
Dr Flegg stood down from the ministry in November after questions were raised about interactions between his son Jonathon Flegg, formerly of government relations firm Rowland, and Dr Flegg's office.
Dr Solomon was updating the committee on the Integrity Commission's progress in creating a new code of conduct for lobbyists, which the commission will only be able to impose on registered lobbyists, estimated to account for just 20 per cent of lobbying activity.
Dr Flegg called the current situation a "circus".
"Unless we clean up this current mess, I think we are just going to see people trying to influence governments in different ways," Dr Flegg said.
Under the draft amendments to the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, registered lobbyists will be required to provide details of their lobbying contact with government representatives every month, to enter the information directly onto a page in the Integrity Commissioner's website, include information such as the date of the contact, name of the client, lobbyists present, government representative and the registered lobbyer themselves, as well as the purpose of the contact and brief description of the main issues.
That information will be "generally accessible" on the Integrity Commission's website.
Government ministers will release their diaries every month, predicted to be by the end of the following month.
Dr Solomon told the committee he believed registered lobbyists would be put under a burden he considered to be "fairly minor" by the disclosure, but that unregistered and exempt lobbyists; such as "in-house lobbyists" and industry groups, would be "caught in ministerial diaries".
"The new system of the ministers disclosing their contacts with the others who lobby will in fact even the playing field," Dr Solomon said.
"The public will have knowledge of at least some of that 80 per cent in least in relation to ministers."
However Dr Solomon said the new system would not be perfect.
"That is not going to catch people who are just dealing with ministers' offices or with the departments, but at least it is a step in the right direction," he said.
"If the government were to adopt a policy that ministers and their offices and their department will not see any lobbyist, whether they are registered or not, unless they subscribe to the code of conduct, that would also be a huge contribution to making the whole system much more open. And that is a proposal that I think should be considered by the government. I can't do it myself, I can't impose the code on anyone, except registered lobbyists."
The new code of conduct will still have limitations.
Dr Solomon said there was nothing to stop lobbyists from marking the meeting as "commercial in confidence" which would mean they would not have to expand on the meeting's detail.
The code will also only be concerned with the definition of lobbying; that lobbying is contact with government representatives in an effort to influence government decision-making and does not take into account any perceived lobbying - that is, contact or meeting with lobbyists, where lobbying is not discussed.
Arranging, changing or cancelling a lobbying meeting or meetings where no lobbying, as defined by the code's definition, occurred, will not be considered lobbying.
In effect, a lobbyist could arrange for government representatives to meet with industry stakeholders, but it would only be considered lobbying if actual government lobbying took place at the meeting; arranging to be at the meeting would not be considered lobbying.
The Finance and Administration Committee will meet again on March 6. The Integrity Commission hopes to have the new code in place by April 1.