It has taken far too long but finally two state governments are taking very seriously the threat to the public interest posed by the inherent risks of corruption and undue influence associated with lobbying.
This week the NSW Government, and a few weeks ago the Queensland Government, decided to implement all the recommendations made by reviewers of their existing lobbying regulatory regimes.
The NSW reforms are the more far-reaching and follow more than a decade of investigation and research by the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. An earlier set of recommendations by ICAC designed to better regulate lobbying failed to attract any real support from the government, which decided to implement just five of its 17 recommendations. This time the government has agreed to every one of the 29 ICAC proposals and in doing so to enact a scheme far more ambitious than ICAC suggested a decade earlier.
Similarly in Queensland the government has decided to implement ‘lock stock and barrel’ the proposals by its integrity reviewer, Professor Peter Coaldrake.
The NSW reforms will result in the appointment of an independent dedicated lobbying commissioner (currently the electoral commissioner supervises lobbying) who will oversee not only the conduct of lobbyists but also public officials (including public servants, ministers and their staff) and their compliance with a toughened code of conduct.
The code will also cover so-called in-house lobbyists, those who are directly employed by entities such as very large companies like banks, miners and airlines that lobby on their own behalf, as well as those involved in traditional third-party lobbying.
The lobbying commissioner will have full investigative powers and be able to initiate inquiries as well as deal with complaints.
All meetings between lobbyists and officials (both elected and appointed) will have to be documented and reported publicly in a way that is easily accessible by the public.
The new system will make public officials (both elected and appointed) at least equally (with lobbyists) responsible and culpable for the integrity of the lobbying system. It will require public officials to act honestly, impartially and disinterestedly, act in the public interest and not for any extraneous purpose, and not act improperly, including by improper preferencing or favouritism. This of course is the way public officials are supposed to act anyway. But spelling out their obligations explicitly should make them more conscious of their duties, and make it easier for the regulator to investigate possible breaches of the code of conduct.
Ministers, meanwhile, will be required to publish their meeting diaries monthly (as is the case in Queensland) rather than quarterly. Those diaries will be required (as ICAC proposed) ‘to be in a single, searchable document or database formatted for easy access to enable public scrutiny.’
The senior advisers of ministers and parliamentary secretaries will be banned from lobbying in areas where they have had official dealings for 12 months after leaving office.
For the first time, the NSW lobbying regulations will be applied to local government, where ICAC has found serious problems with the way some lobbying has been conducted. The Queensland code already covers local government.
Meanwhile in Queensland the list of people who have to register as lobbyists will be extended to include ‘all professionals offering paid lobbying services for third parties’. This is expected to impact on some legal and accountancy firms.
Also ministerial diaries will have to include meetings between ministerial staff and lobbyists, and these will have to be properly documented and reported.
NSW and Queensland will now have regulatory regimes covering lobbying that are far more extensive than those in the other states and the Commonwealth. At the federal level successive governments have resisted attempts to introduce meaningful regulation of lobbyists.
Arguably the fact that political donations are far more substantial and important in Canberra than at state level increases the risk of corruption and undue influence at the federal level that so concerned ICAC in NSW. The Albanese Government should follow the example being set in NSW and Queensland before its proposed new integrity commission has to investigate a lobbying scandal.
(Disclosure: I made submissions to the ICAC inquiries into lobbying and was interviewed by Professor Coaldrake for his inquiry. I was responsible for overseeing the lobbying regulations when I was Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2010-2014.)