Labor landed a big catch last week week. Pushing Senator Arthur Sinodinos out of the Abbott ministry dominated their tactics in parliament.
The Senator’s Coalition colleagues rushed to stand up for John Howard's former Chief of Staff when he stepped aside. But one Liberal MP privately suggested the accolades made ad nauseum by Liberal and National MPs were starting to sound more like eulogies.
As speculation builds about Sinodinos’ future, and interest in the work of the NSW corruption watchdog ICAC grows, the frame needs to be widened far beyond a well-connected Liberal who many had tipped was returning to a powerful place in government.
Attention needs to shift to reforming the political and business standards that have given rise to what some dub the "NSW disease".
That is precisely what the Coalition and Labor do not want to happen. While the debate this week about Sinodinos was intense between the major parties, Coalition and Labor were united in shutting down any consideration of cleaning up rules for lobbyists.
On Tuesday, in the midst of the vitriolic stoush about what Sinodinos had or had not done, the government and opposition joined forces in the Senate to vote down a Greens motion backing greater regulation of lobbying activities in the federal parliament.
Just one of Sinodinos’ actions as AWH Director highlights why Labor at least should have found some backbone and voted for stronger rules to cover the work of lobbyists.
In January 2011 Sinodinos had the job of negotiating a $1 million success fee for the NSW lobbyist and former NSW Coalition Minister Michael Photios. The coming ICAC hearings should throw more light on this.
The Senate motion to clean up lobbying rules set out the need to ban success fees. There is nothing radical about this. In 2011 NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell made this a criminal offence for interactions with the NSW government.
When the vote was taken on the motion Labor and the Coalition voted together against the nine Greens Senators who backed reform.
The existing Lobbying Code of Conduct captures little of the lobbying activity that occurs behind closed doors. Lobbyists work to influence the decisions of parliament for the group or business that pays them. There is nothing wrong with this but the public has a right to know what they do.
Lobbyists can change government decisions. How they use their power needs to be opened up to scrutiny.
The motion the Coalition and Labor voted against called for an Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, a new definition of lobbying to include all MPs and Senators – including cross benchers and opposition MPs — and for a ban on the payment of success fees to lobbyists.
The Greens also called for the scope of lobbying to include corporations and organisations that employ in-house lobbyists, and for details of the meetings between lobbyists and MPs to be made public.
No major party Senator spoke against the motion to explain why they are opposed to these changes and are willing to leave the current feeble oversight system in place.
The decision of the Coalition and Labor to vote together sets back moves to raise the standard on lobbyists' behaviour and achieving better outcomes for the public.
Both these parties have a track record of opposing reform to tighten up lobbyist activities. In 2012 Labor opposed a Senate Inquiry to review the federal Lobbying Code of Conduct.
While the Greens won support to set up the inquiry the Coalition moved quickly to limit its scope, with only four witnesses called. No recommendations were made in the report apart from what the Greens set out in their dissenting report.
This hands-off approach to raising standards lags well behind regulatory schemes in the US and Canada and has opened the floodgates to the dubious practices that ICAC is now investigating.
Many of the unanswered questions that hopefully ICAC will explore would have been on the public record if the major parties had been willing to tighten up the rules under which the culture of buying influence is conducted.
The unwillingness of Labor and the Coalition to raise standards on the behaviour of MPs and lobbyists needs to be laid bare if we are turn the corner on the unsavoury practices that are creeping into Australian political and business life.
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