Independent MP Dr. Monique Ryan has introduced a bill to Parliament today which would put limits on lobbying activities in federal politics.
Lobbyists, who seek to influence government policies on behalf of individuals or organisations, are subject to little oversight or regulation.
Ryan says she wants to bring attention to the “shocking” presence of vested interests in politics. The bill is not expected to pass.
So, what is lobbying?
Expensive professional lobbyists often carry out lobbying. Most of their clients are private businesses.
Lobbyists cultivate political connections to benefit their clients. About 40% of registered lobbyists are former politicians, political staffers or senior public servants.
Lobbying is legal and can serve legitimate purposes, but critics say it gives too much access and influence to those who can afford it.
The Attorney-General’s Department maintains a register of lobbyists and their clients, as well as a code of conduct. The code prohibits “corrupt, dishonest or illegal” conduct and says lobbyists must aim to ensure “truth and accuracy” in what they tell politicians.
It also puts an 18-month ban on former officials lobbying on any matter they dealt with in the 18 months prior to leaving office. For example, a former Defence Minister could not immediately lobby on defence issues, but could 18 months after leaving office.
However, the code of conduct is not legally enforceable and there are no financial penalties for breaching it.
It also covers a limited number of lobbyists. The code excludes representatives of charities, not-for-profits, religious organisations, unions, and employer groups. It also excludes ‘in-house’ lobbyists employed by companies.
There are no restrictions on how often lobbyists can meet politicians, and no requirement to disclose these meetings. Many lobbyists have ‘access all areas’ passes that allow them to enter Parliament House.
Independent MP Monique Ryan wants a more extensive code of conduct for lobbying at the federal level. It would be legally enforceable, with penalties of up to $30,000 for breaches.
Her bill would require lobbyists from charities, unions and employers groups, as well as ‘in-house’ lobbyists to register and be covered by the rules.
Lobbyists would have to report on their meetings four times a year, and ministers would also be required to publish their diaries.
The bill would prevent lobbyists from providing high-value gifts or hospitality (e.g. a corporate box at a sporting event) and stop lobbyists from campaigning for political candidates at elections.
It would also extend the lobbying ban for former government officials from 18 months to three years, and prevent lobbyists from lobbying people with whom they have a “close relationship”.
Ryan, a first-term independent MP, says she is “shocked” by the prevalence of lobbying at Federal Parliament in Canberra. “Hundreds of them roam the halls in Canberra, secretly meeting with Ministers to influence government policies”.
She argues lobbying has had a particularly significant effect on climate policy. Ryan noted every Resources Minister who has left politics since 2001 has gone to work as a fossil fuel lobbyist.
In response to questions from TDA, a spokesperson for the Attorney-General noted the Attorney-General already has the power to de-register lobbyists who do not comply with the code of conduct. The spokesperson did not indicate whether the Government supported Ryan’s bill.
However, the Government and the Opposition do not typically support bills proposed by private members.