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Even with the best of intentions, there's no easy way to untangle what goes on behind closed doors


Regulating lobbyists is shaping as the hardest thing for the Palaszczuk Government and Dennis Atkins sees the latest attempt as again falling short.

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The biggest problem with the state government’s tweak of lobbying rules is it reads as if the changes were written by lobbyists.

A bit of process-driven, “pass the parcel” labelling of who is and isn’t a lobbyist and how appointments are made will have little material effect on how the business of these shadow-dwellers is conducted.

Maybe the asterix at the bottom of the government announcement – requiring the “subject matter” of discussions is disclosed – will provide some additional sunshine on this usually behind closed doors caper. Maybe not.

There’s also the timing of the announcement of a revision of the code of conduct coming just a day before the receipt of Peter Coaldrake’s report on accountability and workplace culture in the public sector.

Could this be a case of the cart before the horse? If the government’s response to Coaldrake’s report includes some heavily blathered talk of “we’ve dealt with that”, cynicism will be not just excused but required.

These things stand out in this seemingly too clever exercise.

The problem with lobbying in Queensland – and elsewhere around the country – is not what people who do it call themselves although there is a commonsense need to call everyone engaged in influence-peddling and door-opening a lobbyist. However, to say this is some kind of bold reform is boosterism on stilts.

The problem is the opaque nature of what is done and between whom it is done. Former Labor Party officials – most mentioned are ex-state secretaries Evan Morehead and Cameron Milner who work in separate lobbying shops – not only stroll the carpets in ministerial offices seeking access and influence but are hired by the ALP to come in and run election campaigns for the benefit of those same ministers.

Can public servants be excused for seeing these interchanges in the highest offices (both the mentioned campaign working lobbyists were operating out of No 1 William Street in October, 2020) and believe that’s the way business happens If the public servant wants to please the boss, why not look out for the political interests first.

At the very least, it’s a perversion of the way a government operates. Nothing in Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s announced changes to the heralded code of conduct changes this. And what of the code itself? Is it mandatory or some kind of self-regulation? Enforceable? By whom and how?

Why not have a ban on people operating as political operators working for government or opposition at any level also plying the trade of influence conjuring and door-opening? Something that could be done at the stroke of a pen.

The other announced changes to the way ministers and their offices do business with lobbyists are less than meets the eye.

Making it a requirement for a meeting to be applied for in writing and only with the ministerial chief of staff or a delegated subordinate falls neatly into the “so what” category.
Didn’t we just see a deputy chief of staff from the Premier’s office leave and then instantly taking up work with a prominent lobbying outfit?

The final tweak is the need to disclose what was talked about – by lobbyists in the register where activity is recorded and ministers in official diaries.
This could be something or nothing. If it is just a headline reveal – the meeting “covered Queensland taxation”, for instance – it tells us nothing. Any manner of serious give and take, to coin a phrase, can be hidden behind the most simple heading.

At the very least, there should be certain levels of detail deemed essential: any proposals put to the government explained with beneficial requests outlined, names of corporate players behind representations, and any legislative or regulatory changes proposed.

Behind the opaque lobbying attracting so much attention in Queensland is a serious flaw in the business model of politics – one without a simple solution.
In the United States – from where we pick up most habits for playing and misbehaving in politics – there is a general division between operators regarded as lobbyists and those called consultants.

Both groups come from the same gene pool – ex-politicians, senior officials, journalists, lawyers, and academics – but there is an expected separation of who does what.
Lobbyists lobby – they push causes and pet projects in the national and state capitals – and consultants run campaigns. Some at the bottom of the food chain mix the two but generally the division is clear and respected.

It’s said Australian politics doesn’t have the critical mass for money-making potential in having separate lobbying and consulting businesses. This is a pity because, as we have seen recently in Queensland and also can find in other states such as Victoria, some otherwise talented political operators get caught in what have at the very least a serious perception of a conflict of interest.

What is probably an overly generous interpretation of what has been announced, this might be a bit of signalling from the top to nudge the culture. If so, great but the way cultural change happens in Queensland suggests a nudge is not going to cut it. Slamming the doors shut might be a better way to go.

Also, anyone who thinks this will make the matter go away has another think coming.

The Crime and Corruption Commission slipped out a statement on lobbyists in the lead up to this current flurry of apparent activity. A careful reading of the document makes this clear: if they discover or receive information about suspected wrongdoing involving lobbyists (whoever it might be doing whatever they might have done), there could be official inquiries and possible public hearings.

That’s something to focus the mind.

Publisher’s note: InQueensland has used the services of government relations firm Hawker Britton in dealings with the Queensland Government. This work has been fully declared on the State Government lobbyist register


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