When Lobbyists Cross The Line

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Jack Abramoff, the man at the heart of the biggest US lobbying scandal this century, had one clear recommendation for cleaning up the lobbying industy in that country: all elected members of government and their staff should be permanently banned from paid lobbying activity after they leave their public positions. As Abramoff said, the revolving door from serving in government to becoming a lobbyist needs to be shut: "If you chose public service, choose it to serve the public, not your bank account. When you’re done serving go home. Get a real job."

In Australia we lack a strong regulatory system for lobbyists. Just as mishaps in Washington are instructive for Australian regulators, more recent scandals in the UK also provide some indications of what effective reform might involve.

Similar to Washington lobbying is big business in London — it is a £2 billion industry in Britain. It is so large that prior to becoming Prime Minister David Cameron warned that lobbying would be "the next big scandal" in Britain. And he has been proven correct — in fact there have been two major scandals involving his government since October 2011.

Cameron promised to introduce reforms to the lobbying industry, but after 22 months in office, nothing has happened. Even the British Deputy Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, has exempted himself from taking an active role in this policy area due to his wife’s senior positions in lobbying firms.

The first of these scandals involved the Conservative Defence Secretary Liam Fox. Fox was investigated for possibly breaking the ministerial code. He had been under pressure since it emerged that he had involved a lobbyist named Adam Werrity in meetings on some 18 foreign trips despite the lobbyist having no official role.

Werritty was a former flatmate of Fox and the best man at his wedding, handed out business cards suggesting he was his adviser and was present at meetings Fox had with military figures, diplomats and defence contractors. Fox allowed Werritty to attend one meeting with defence contractors without any civil servants being present.

Fox resigned as Defence Secretary in mid-October 2011. However, Liam Fox’s departure left a cloud of unanswered questions over the precise role of his friend in the Ministry of Defence.

Werritty’s business activities involved members of a number of lobby groups for various countries or foreign political interests, including the now defunct Atlantic Bridge. He helped clients obtain privileged access to senior ministers. Labour has pointed out the connections between Atlantic Bridge and climate change sceptics and Tea Party supporters in the US Republican party.

More worrying for many people is the possibility that Israel’s right-wing government enjoyed a kind of hotline to Liam Fox via Werritty’s friends in Atlantic Bridge and Bicom.

The Independent broke the second scandal in December 2011 using material uncovered during an investigation of the work undertaken by lobbying firm Bell Pottinger’s work for the country of Uzbekistan by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Bell Pottinger Group is a multinational public relations and marketing company based in London and a totally owned subsidiary of Chime Communications. The company offers services such as lobbying, speech writing, search engine optimisation and sorting Wikipedia articles to clients including companies, governments and wealthy individuals.

Lord Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger and chairman of Chime Communications. Uzbekistan was included in the 2011 list of "Worst of the Worst" repressive regimes published by the US think-tank Freedom House.

Reporters from the Bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan and representatives of its cotton industry in a bid to discover what promises British lobbying and public relations firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients. What techniques did they use and how much of their work was open to public scrutiny?

These reporters secretly recorded senior executives of Bell Pottinger and found them boasting about the company’s access to the heart of the British Government and how it uses "dark arts" to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion.

The reporters found that Bell Pottinger employees claimed they had used their access to Downing Street to persuade David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients, within 24 hours of asking him to do so.

They boasted about Bell Pottinger’s access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, to Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn and to Cameron’s old friend and close adviser Steve Hilton. They even suggested the company could manipulate Google results to "drown out" negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour. Clients were also told it was possible to use MPs known to be critical of investigative programmes to attack their reporting for minor errors.

During this investigation the reporters discovered other work the company had successfully done for the engineering firm Dyson — such as getting David Cameron to complain about copyright infringement to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao during a state visit in June 2011. 

Bell Pottinger also advised their clients on political donations. Tim Collins, who is managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, said he told clients not to give a political donation to the Conservatives because it could be counter-productive. "It’s becoming in some cases more difficult for a company that has given money to the party in power to get in certain meetings and get what they want than it is for a party that hasn’t because the media is hugely focused on scruples so I wouldn’t recommend that."

This is a sign that media outlets have been successful in pointing out the negative aspects of political donations.

The Liam Fox and Bell Pottinger scandals point to ways in which lobbyists can be more effectively regulated in Australia.

First, there needs to be an independent government body set up to report directly to federal parliament. This body would have auditing and investigative powers — and a mandate to enforce the registration of lobbyists and a strong lobbyist code of conduct.

Second, all contact between lobbyists and government officials should be reported on a public register: when the lobbying occurred, who stood to benefit, who was lobbied, the subject matter of the lobbying and the meeting outcome.

Third, not only should all former members of government and their staff be banned from working as lobbyists, this should also include close members of their families — especially spouses.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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