Nothing does more to undermine public trust in government than the perception that the rich and powerful can put a word in the ears of decision makers to promote their interests.
The past year has given plenty of examples of how the system of lobbying can distort government decisions. The Independent Commission Against Corruption in March made corruption findings against former MP Daryl Maguire, the secret lover of Premier Gladys Berejiklian, about concealing his lobbying for development approvals at Canterbury Council. Sports Minister John Sidoti has been the focus of a separate ICAC hearing, talking about his lobbying of the City of Canada Bay.
Some argue it’s a matter of a few bad apples. A report released by the ICAC this week has, however, called for major reforms to NSW current regulation of lobbyists, access and influence which it describes as “minimalist” compared with other countries and even other states.
Of course, in a democracy, interested parties must be able to express their views to government officials and anyone should be able to join the debate on broad policies.
But unless lobbying by private interests is properly disclosed and governed by some basic ground rules it will undermine public trust and raise the risk of corruption.
The current system in NSW falls well short of what the electorate should demand. Ministers only have to disclose their formal meetings every quarter but not what they talked about. Meetings at social events, overseas and at political gatherings fall between the cracks. The ICAC says all this must be made public.
The current lobbying rules also have significant exclusions, especially for local governments, even though repeated ICAC inquiries have shown them to be extremely vulnerable to corrupt lobbying. While the current rules cover third-party lobbying companies, people petitioning for their employers or themselves get a free pass. The rules are vague on whether government officials can meet lobbyists in social settings or share private information with them.
The report also calls for tighter control on the revolving door where government officials take jobs with companies which they once regulated and lobby the departments where they used to work.
Some officials now go into the public service expecting this will be a stepping stone to big bucks in the private sector.
But one of the ICAC’s key findings was that NSW faces “an unmanaged risk of undue influence in NSW from former officials who undertake lobbying”.
Ministers and heads of department are already subject to an 18-month wait. The ICAC says that officials in sensitive posts should face a cooling off period of six months, which already applies to senior officials at the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority, and senior ministerial advisers should be required to wait a year.
The Herald endorses all of the ICAC’s 29 recommendations but governments of both sides have a poor track record in this area. The ICAC issued a similar report in 2010 but only five of its 17 recommendations were implemented.
The link between lobbying and corruption is not just a state issue. The federal government, which has failed to deliver on its promise to legislate a Federal Integrity Commission, is exposed too. For example, the Auditor- General has called for an investigation into two federal bureaucrats in relation to the $33 million purchase of land near the Western Sydney airport. They met lobbyists in the Parliament coffee shop.
The Herald endorses the open letter signed by 59 eminent persons, including former High Court Justice Mary Gaudron, QC, who this week called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to pass the legislation in this Parliament. Governments in all jurisdictions should act to put open, honest and transparent democracy first. Voters will reward them for it.
Note from the Editor
The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.