Canberra’s anonymous revolving door of lobbyists demeans parliament

Lobbying is sometimes called a dirty little secret shared by both sides of politics but the increasing push for political influence is creating an unsavory alliance between MPs and lobbyists, former politicians and apparatchiks, with clients prepared to pay millions of dollars for access.

Just how furtive some federal MPs are being in protecting the anonymity of the pervasive revolving door of lobbyists has been revealed in a report by the ’s chief political correspondent David Crowe. Lobbyists and other influence peddlers can walk unannounced into the parliamentary offices of all ministers, backbenchers and independents at any time because they have round-the-clock access to the building under a parliamentary pass system signed by federal politicians that keeps their identities secret.

The number of so-called “sponsored” passes reached 1791 in February and included 891 issued since this parliament began last July, although the total number has been higher in the past. One politician approved 55 of the special passes, but parliamentary rules prevent them from being identified. The passes can be issued to anyone as long as the applicant agrees to a security check and is approved by any senator or member of the House of Representatives, making them the only pass category for lobbyists and others who want to influence those in power. They are valid for three years.

A crossbench alliance, led by independent senator David Pocock, is pushing for new rules to reveal the people who have gained unfettered access to the building’s private corridors with these sponsored passes. They have signed a letter asking the presiding officers in the Senate and the House of Representatives who supervise security passes for politicians, staff, the media and visitors to disclose the pass holder names and their sponsors.

But the push for transparency is raising concerns over privacy and security because the sponsored passes include family members and other people who are not engaged in lobbying, which suggests parliamentary authorities would oppose release of all the names.

The rise of the lobbyist has coincided with the decline of other political checks and balances. While fewer federal press gallery journalists are now arrayed against multiplying armies of lobbyists, ministerial press secretaries and media units, lobbying has also been hugely augmented by new tools for influencing government, including social media, and a wide range of actors, such as NGOs, industry groups, think tanks and even foreign governments. Yet, Australia’s federal lobbying controls are widely regarded as risible when compared with international standards and fall short of OECD recommendations.

The Hawke government introduced a lobbyist registration scheme in 1983 in response to the findings of the Hope royal commission which examined links between an ALP heavyweight turned political consultant and a Russian diplomate in Canberra, which became known as the Combe-Ivanov affair. Governments since have promised reforms but done the minimum. The current system boasts a lobbying code of conduct that dates back to 2008 and a public lobbyists register minted in 2013. But the rules are loose, there is a lack of transparency, breaches carry minor penalties and, in any case, are not comprehensively or independently policed.

Lobbying is a fact of life and often perceived as an opaque activity of dubious integrity but the widespread perception that policy decisions are driven by private vested interests at the expense of the public good perhaps goes some way towards explaining why opinion polls regularly show trust in government is waning.

That said, parliaments in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and the US Congress have arrangements allowing scrutiny of passes granted by politicians. The habit of our MPs to usher anonymous lobbyists into their parliamentary inner sanctums makes a travesty of open government. In the interest of transparency, surely it is not beyond the federal parliament to reform its rules to shine a light on the influencers.

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