The Questions The Gas Lobby Won't Answer


This is the second article of a two-part series on CSG lobbyists. Read the first here

There is no doubt that the NSW coal seam gas industry has struck obstacles including widespread community opposition, chemical spills and a ban on fracking imposed in December last year. In the first of our two-part report on coal seam gas lobbyists, we showed that companies have enlisted some of Australia’s leading conservative lobbyists to exert influence behind the scenes. But what form does that influence take and how successful is it? As Calliste Weintenberg discovered, it’s hard to find out — and there are also serious questions about the clarity and currency of information on the state’s lobbyist registers.

It is areas like Narrabri in the state’s north west that NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham says are the focus of the most furious lobbying from the coal seam gas industry. It’s here that firms are putting "a lot of effort" particularly into targeting National MPs, he says.

According to Statecraft lobbyist Gavin Melvin, the $2.3 billion coal seam gas project was at the heart of Santos’ $924-million takeover of Eastern Star Gas last year. There’s a lot of money riding on smooth progress as Santos awaits final approvals on plans to sink 550 gas wells in the Pilliga East State Forest near Narrabri where, as new Matilda reports today, chemical spills are being investigated.

"The biggest bang for [the industry’s]buck at the moment is focusing on the National Party," agrees Dr Peter Chen, lecturer in politics and media at the University of Sydney. "The Nationals have a lot to lose on this issue because this is happening mostly in their constituency which obviously threatens their support base. So where is the political pressure point? The pressure point is in those Nationals electorates and in the National Party room."

Ex-Nationals lobbying for Santos include former leader of the NSW branch Ian Armstrong.

Jeremy Buckingham points to other key CSG areas of NSW — the seats of Barwon and Tamworth — and to their National MPs Kevin Humphries and Kevin Anderson as particular targets.

"These MPs are being lobbied heavily," said Buckingham. "They’re coming under an enormous amount of pressure from their community. But then they’ve also got the industry in their ears continually telling them that they have to strike the balance [between industry and agriculture]."

"This is the line you now see them trotting out," he said.

The NSW register is supposed to ensure that lobbyists declare who they are working for — but just what they are being paid and the dates and details of meetings between them and government representatives aren’t declared.

Both a 2009 parliamentary inquiry and a 2010 report by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) have recommended the NSW Lobbyist Code should require details of contact between lobbyists and government representatives be recorded, reported to each minister and ultimately made public.

Currently, only the Department of Planning and Infrastructure (DPI) records such details on its Lobbyist Contact Register. But that register records only meetings with the department staff — not the minister. So far no DPI meetings with the coal seam gas industry have been listed since the list was set up in mid-2011.

When contacted by New Matilda, a spokesperson for Kevin Humphries said he had not met or discussed CSG with any lobbyist groups. The Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson didn’t respond to questions.

A spokeswoman for NSW Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, Brad Hazzard — who approves petroleum projects such as the Narrabri Gas Project — revealed that the minister had met with lobbyists.

"The Minister meets with a range of stakeholders about a variety of planning and infrastructure issues," she said. "He has met with both pro and anti CSG groups during the course of usual business."

Just what constitutes "usual business" between lobbyists and government can be hard to determine.

The 2010 investigation into lobbying in NSW by ICAC highlighted the Lobbyist Code of Conduct’s failure to outline what counts as lobbying or lobbying activities, citing it as a gap in a regulatory system aimed at transparency. It also raised concerns about the failure of the code to specify the behaviour of government representatives in dealing with lobbyists.

When questioned during a Budget Estimates sitting in October last year, the NSW Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Stoner did however shed some light on the nature of "run-ins" that can occur regularly outside of Parliament.

"Approximately three months ago I ran into [Eastern Star Gas’s John Anderson] at an airport lounge in between flights — he was there for about five minutes," said Stoner.

"[Anderson] said to me, ‘Have you seen the article in the Courier Mail about coal seam gas and the irresponsible scare campaign that is being run by some groups? Read that article. It puts the other side of the story’."

"That was the extent of the conversation we had before one of us had to catch a plane. I must say that he did not make those comments in his role as Chairman of Eastern Star Gas; his comments were made as a colleague and a friend."

The NSW Lobbyist register site provides guidelines about how, if personal contact occurs, lobbyists and government representatives still have an obligation to make it clear when lobbying is occurring.

Neither Santos nor AGL would comment when New Matilda phoned to enquire about their use of lobbyists. Spokesperson for Santos, Matthew Doman, simply stated that its consultants are employed "to provide advice on public affairs and communications".

As New Matilda discovered in the course of this investigation, there are also serious questions about the clarity and currency of the information that is on the NSW Lobbyist Register. Considerable confusion exists over when previous relationships should be removed from the register.

While information regarding any change to client relationships is required by the Lobbyist Code of Conduct to be updated within 10 days to ensure transparency, a clause in the code states that "persons" on behalf of whom a lobbyist has worked are required to remain listed on the register for three months after the relationship ends. A separate clause simply identifying "third parties", however, does not mention this.

This makes it difficult to determine just who is lobbying on behalf of whom at any specific time. (This problem does not exist in Queensland where past clients are listed separately on the register. In NSW, they are removed altogether.)

Following publication of our first article — in which we claimed Coalition-aligned lobby firm Barton Deakin was lobbying for Metgasco on the basis of information we had obtained from the register — Metgasco’s manager of external relations, Richard Shields, told New Matilda that the company "does not currently use any consulting firms to conduct its lobbying with any government in Australia". He also stated Metgasco "has never had a contractual relationship with consulting firm Barton Deakin" and "nor has Barton Deakin ever communicated with any representative from the NSW Government on our behalf".

Shields was the former deputy director of the NSW Liberals until he shifted to Metgasco in August 2011.

Shields also complained that New Matilda had not contacted Metgasco prior to publication of the article. In fact, New Matilda’s reporter contacted Metgasco with inquiries about their relationship with lobbyists twice, but on both occasions calls were not returned.

The purpose of the Lobbyist Register is to provide the public with up to date information about who is attempting to exert behind the scenes influence on government decision making. A spokesperson within the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet who manages the register said the information displayed on the register is confirmed quarterly and the last quarter ended 31 January. The register is based on information provided by the lobbyist groups themselves via a form specifying, among other things, the addition or removal of certain clients.

New Matilda checked the register prior to publication. Barton Deakin’s client list was last updated 24 January 2012 — less than two weeks before our first story’s publication — and included Metgasco.

Following Richard Shields’ statement that the register was incorrect, New Matilda contacted the Sydney office for Barton Deakin.

A spokesman, who initially refused to give his name but was later identified as executive assistant Dominic Rohde, told New Matilda that Metgasco "may have been a client" although he "can’t confirm or clarify this". He added that "currently they are not a client" and that "the person who dealt with Metgasco is not currently here".

The specific links required by the lobbyist code are the "names of all third parties for whom a lobbyist provides paid or unpaid services", as well as "the names of any persons for whom they’ve provided paid or unpaid services as a lobbyist during the previous three months".

Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin are sister companies, both owned by holding company STW Group. Hawker Britton is still listed as working for Metgasco on both the Federal and NSW lobbyist registers.

Managing director of Hawker Britton, Justin Di Lollo, clarified matters in a statement:

"Hawker Britton consulted to Metgasco on a range of government relations and corporate strategy matters until December 2011. As part of that engagement, Hawker Britton subcontracted certain activities to its sister firm, Barton Deakin. As a result, both firms listed Metgasco as a ‘client’ on the NSW Register of Lobbyists. There was never a direct commercial relationship between Barton Deakin and Metgasco.

"As the NSW Government Lobbyist Code of Conduct requires lobbyists to list their clients for three months after the cessation of activity, Metgasco will appear as a ‘client’ on the register until March 2012."

"The NSW Register of Lobbyists… is blind to commercial arrangements between companies and their consultants."

"Because of this, it is entirely possible and proper for Metgasco to have had no commercial arrangement directly with Barton Deakin but still be listed as a ‘client’. This listing meets all the requirements of the Code and was done to ensure the highest level of transparency, integrity and honesty."

When contacted by New Matilda, a legal representative within the Department Premier and Cabinet could not verify whether or not clients could remain on the register after a relationship had ceased, citing the need to remove old clients within 10 days of the relationship ending.

Meanwhile, with a Liberal National party government a strong possibility after next month’s election in Queensland, Barton Deakin is growing there as well. A new Queensland office was opened and announced by Barton Deakin on 28 November last year. Its new Queensland chairman, ex Brisbane Mayor and ABC Learning Centres director Sallyanne Atkinson, is listed on the Barton Deakin website as "providing government relations, business and strategic advice to the firm’s clients in Queensland".

However, the firm is not yet listed on the Queensland Lobbyist Register.

When asked why, Atkinson told New Matilda:

"We are in the process of listing Barton Deakin on the Queensland register…the problems of setting-up a new office etc. Barton Deakin (Qld) is me as Chairman and Ted O’Brien as managing Director. I can’t tell you who all our clients are, but Peabody Energy are not. I could get you a list [of current clients]today but that would be too late for your publication."

Peabody Pacific, one of Australia’s largest mining companies with 10 operations in Queensland and New South Wales, is currently listed across the NSW and Federal lobby registers as a client of Barton Deakin.

A representative from Peabody Energy said these relationships have also ended and that Barton Deakin "only ever lobbied for [them]federally".

Lobbyists are part of the political process — and it’s critical that their is some transparency regarding their activities. As this investigation shows, it’s difficult and frustrating to work out just who is lobbying and for whom.

The provisions of the lobbyists code of conduct are insufficiently clear and it’s worrying indeed that the relationships between lobbyists and clients can be obscured by foggy language.
As well-connected lobbyists acting for powerful CSG interests fight for big investments across the state of NSW, it’s vtial that transparency be restored to the register.

Post script: Just before publication today Richard Shields emailed New Matilda stating: "I was incorrect to say that Barton Deakin had never had contact with the NSW Government on behalf of Metgasco".

This is the second article of a two-part series on CSG lobbyists in collaboration with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s Global Environmental Journalism Initiative. Read the first here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.