Corporations exploiting ‘weak integrity laws’ to influence government: Report

Corporations exploiting ‘weak integrity laws’ to influence government: Report


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Former politicians and advisers are moving quickly into lucrative jobs that seek to lobby the federal government on policies ranging from mining to gambling and defence, sparking a new call to increase disclosure and toughen sanctions on those who flout the rules.

The Centre for Public Integrity is calling for a stronger regime to stop the “revolving door” of influence in Canberra as people with political experience take up lobbying jobs that build on their personal connections or policy knowledge.

“Big corporations are exploiting our weak integrity laws to gain access and influence government,” said Anthony Whealy KC, a former NSW Supreme Court judge and the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.Credit: Peter Rae

While the lobbying code of conduct, which started on February 28, 2022, is meant to impose a formal separation period of at least one year between a post in government and a lobbying position in the same policy field, a report by the independent think tank said too many former officials were being signed up by political donors with “very little time” between the two jobs.

“Big corporations are exploiting our weak integrity laws to gain access and influence government,” said Anthony Whealy KC, a former NSW Supreme Court judge and the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.

“They are making big donations and employing former ministers and advisers as lobbyists. This can mean their corporate interests are given more weight than the public interest in political decision-making.”

The report warns that lobbyists are often working on behalf of entities that donated significantly to their parties and campaigns while in office, saying this leads to a nexus of corporate influence and elected representatives.

Former Coalition cabinet ministers including Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne and Andrew Robb are named in the report as examples of those who have moved from government to lobbying, while the role of advisers who sign up with the private sector to seek influence over federal policy is also highlighted.

Bishop, who was foreign affairs minister for five years until August 2018 before retiring at the 2019 election, has a single client on the lobbyist register, Twinza Oil, a company developing gas fields in Papua New Guinea. She joined the lobbyist register in April 2020 and disclosed this client in August 2022.

Robb, who was trade minister for 2½ years, acts for Tamboran Resources, which has gas reserves in the Beetaloo Basin in northern Australia. Robb left government before the 2016 election and became a consultant for Chinese company Landbridge Group soon afterwards, after it won a contract to lease and operate the Port of Darwin, but he insisted the next year that he acted ethically and avoided conflicts of interest.

Pyne, who was defence minister for one year and defence industry minister for two years, left parliament at the 2019 election and set up a lobbying firm, Pyne and Partners, which has 60 clients on the federal lobbyist register.

“Democratic integrity requires integrity in lobbying regulation.”

The firm’s clients include submarine battery developer PMB Defence, construction company Civmec, cosmetic giant L’Oréal and space company Saber Astronautics. Pyne registered with the government’s foreign influence transparency scheme to record his relationship with another client, the United Arab Emirates.

Pyne said on Monday he rejected any suggestion that he moved too quickly from government to lobbying in the same portfolio.

“I didn’t lobby anyone in defence for over 18 months after I retired – not the ministers, their offices or the Department of Defence. Any suggestion to the contrary is false,” he said.

Bishop and Robb were also contacted for comment.

Labor figures who are lobbying in Canberra include former communications minister Stephen Conroy, former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon and former minister for veterans’ affairs Alan Griffin. Given the Coalition held power for nine years, the former Labor ministers spent several years in opposition and therefore out of executive government before joining lobbying firms.

The Centre for Public Integrity will issue its report on Tuesday with a call for five reforms including enshrining the lobbying code of conduct in law so it has stricter control of those who seek to influence the government.

It also wants the definition of lobbying to be expanded to include people who work in-house at big companies – a group excluded at the moment because the regime requires disclosure only from people who work for lobbying firms.

Other reforms include the publication of ministerial diaries to disclose any meetings with lobbyists and criminal sanctions for those who breach the rules.

The fifth reform proposal is a separation period of five years from someone leaving parliament to taking up a lobbying position – a much longer period than currently required.

Melbourne University professor Joo Cheong Tham, a Centre for Public Integrity board member, said the “laissez-faire regulation” under current rules encouraged secrecy, corruption and unfairness.

“Democratic integrity requires integrity in lobbying regulation. Post-separation employment restrictions should be lengthened to five years, include MPs, and cover all lobbying, not just in regards to official dealings,” he said.

The lobbying code of conduct says former ministers must not engage in lobbying on any matter with which they had “official dealings” for 18 months after leaving office. This period is only 12 months for former ministerial advisers.

A key issue is whether a post-separation period of five years would make it too difficult for politicians and advisers to find work after leaving politics.

The Centre for Public Integrity is a not-for-profit group with board members including University of NSW professor Gabrielle Appleby, former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles, former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Pamela Tate and former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, Geoffrey Watson, as well as Whealy and Tham.

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