In Canberra, lobbyists outnumber the politicians they seek to influence.
There are 227 MPs compared to 705 lobbyists working for specialist companies – and thousands more who lobby internally for companies, unions and industry associations.
Identified in Parliament by their orange passes, they are free to wander the corridors, governed not by laws but by a code of conduct.
The level of regulation of the sector has been deplored by both integrity experts and independent politicians.
“The current code of conduct for lobbyists is as strong, effective and consistent as a tissue,” said Monique Ryan, independent MP for Kooyong.
“The US, UK, Canada and New Zealand all have stricter lobbying regulations than we do.
Dr. Ryan is set to introduce a private member’s bill on Monday that would reform the system by:
- Legislate the code of conduct
- Regulate in-house lobbyists, not just those who act on behalf of clients
- Impose fines for violations
- Extend reflection periods for ministers and staff who become lobbyists
- Publication of ministers’ agendas
- Ban lobbyists from playing a significant role in election campaigns
“In Parliament you are particularly sensitive to special interests,” Dr Ryan said. 7:30 a.m..
“What we deserve as voters is to understand who the government is speaking to and why.”
The Commonwealth system was described in a National Audit Office report in 2020 as a “light touch” approach to regulation.
“It compares poorly,” said Joo-Cheong Tham, a professor at Melbourne Law School.
“By international standards, federal regulation of lobbying in Australia is decidedly weak.”
In the United States, violations of lobbying laws can result in fines and even prison time. In Canberra, the worst that can happen to a lobbyist is that they are removed from the register.
No one has been evicted for violations in the last five years.
Lobbyists at the federal level also operate with less scrutiny than in states like New South Wales and Queensland, where ministers are forced to publish their agendas, revealing meetings with lobbyists.
Former lobbyist Sean Johnson, who worked for a decade in the industry, says it’s critical that those who work in-house as government relations advisers are also subject to the code.
“When you only regulate a tiny part of the industry, that obviously creates a huge gap that needs to be filled,” Mr Johnson said.
“This is a glaring omission.”
Mr. Johnson, who now runs a website dedicated to tracking politicians’ financial interests and gifts, says lobbying is legitimate but only when it is based on reasoned arguments, not personal connections or donations.
“I don’t think the public would view donations, gifts and the like as an acceptable way of trying to influence public officials,” he said.
No reform plans
Greens and senators including Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock have also pushed for tighter regulation of lobbyists.
This year, a report from the Center for Public Integrity described the federal parliamentary lobbying oversight system as “one of the weakest lobbying regimes in the country.”
But the Australian Professional Government Relations Association opposed the reform at the time.
“(We) believe that strengthening compliance with existing regimes would be a better and more effective outcome than putting more measures into legislation,” said Andrew Cox, president of the association.
A spokesman for Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, whose department administers the lobbyist code of conduct, said several lobbyists had been removed from the registry in the past for failing to update their contact information.
“The code imposes a duty on government officials to meet only with registered third-party lobbyists and to report any violation of the code by a lobbyist to the Department of the Attorney General,” the spokesperson said.
“The government currently has no proposals to change the code, but welcomes suggestions for reform.”
Dr Ryan said the lobbying bill would be a priority for the remainder of his first term.
“People care about integrity and want more transparency,” she said.
“The lobbying part of this puzzle is really important.
“And it will be in the government’s interest to take this seriously because it’s not going to go away.”