The former Labor ministers driving big company contracts


The new generation of lobbyists also includes Ryan Liddell, who was a top adviser to Bill Shorten as opposition leader and Wayne Swan as treasurer, and Eamonn Fitzpatrick, who worked for Julia Gillard as prime minister.

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With huge federal contracts to be won, the growth in the lobbying business has heightened a longstanding concern that the insiders can negotiate deals with more regard to private than public interests.

“That’s absurd,” says one lobbyist unwilling to go on the record.

“Governments are accountable to the public for the decisions they make. Public and political interests prevail.”

But former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, KC, the chair of the non-profit Centre for Public Integrity, says parliament is turning into a “virtual den of thieves” that delivers access in exchange for money.

“The federal lobbying system is well and truly broken,” says Whealy.

How the lobbying code works

Anyone who acts on behalf of third-party clients for the purpose of lobbying Australian government representatives is considered a lobbyist.

These “third-party lobbyists” must be disclose their names and client lists to the public lobbyist register. Australian government representatives must only meet with third-party lobbyists who are registered and cannot meet with those who are not registered.

The Attorney-General’s Department manages the rules and the register. Company directors and executives who lobby the government do not have to register. Ministers do not have to reveal their meetings or their diaries.

“During sitting weeks, the corridors of parliament swell with lobbyists of all persuasions seeking to make their mark. Unfortunately, they do it in a generally unregulated and unaccountable manner.

“Large corporate donors dominate the lobbying process and achieve remarkable success with scant heed to integrity.”

Labor brought far greater transparency to the lobbying sector by setting up a public register more than a decade ago to list every third-party lobbying firm and its clients, the regime that continues today.

Labor also set up the National Anti-Corruption Commission, an election pledge from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese before the last election, to set a higher standard across the public sector.

Like several other lobbyists, Eamonn Fitzpatrick has backed the argument for an expanded register of lobbyists to track who is seeking to influence government.

Like several other lobbyists, Eamonn Fitzpatrick has backed the argument for an expanded register of lobbyists to track who is seeking to influence government.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

No contracts under the current government have triggered concerns like those surrounding former cabinet minister Stuart Robert, and reported by this masthead, due to his friendships with consultants who helped corporate clients win federal contracts.

But a Senate inquiry into lobbying has led to a stalemate over reforms to the rules, with crossbench MPs and senators pushing for a broader regime that forces ministers to reveal contact with lobbyists, requires hundreds more lobbyists to disclose their work and restricts political donations.

The current rules, put in place by prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, say lobbyists who work for independent firms must disclose their companies and clients on a federal register.

This does not include “in-house” executives who work for big companies or industry associations, nor does it include company board members who can advise a company without any disclosure on the federal lobbyist register.

“The age of cognac and cigars in back rooms is well and truly over.”

Tony Hodges, lobbyist and former political adviser

The concerns are growing after the government pledged billions of dollars for its Future Made in Australia policy, including $22.7 billion in the May budget as well as other grants and loans for companies in critical minerals, renewable energy, battery production and broader manufacturing.

Hodges, who joined Pyne and Partners after the last election, says the government is “doing everything by the book” while being open to views from stakeholders and their lobbyists.

Hodges was previously an adviser to Labor frontbenchers including Richard Marles, now deputy prime minister, and Linda Burney, now minister for Indigenous affairs. “The age of cognac and cigars in back rooms is well and truly over,” he says.

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“The government isn’t interested in that. They’re focussed on professionalism and probity, and frankly that’s good for the country.”

There is, however, a growing push for greater transparency about all aspects of the lobbying business, including the government relations executives who work in-house at big companies but do not have to list themselves on the public register of lobbyists under current rules.

Canberra lobbyist Simon Banks, who is managing director of Hawker Britton and was previously a senior adviser to several Labor leaders, backs the case for revealing the list of Parliament House pass-holders and the politicians who signed the passes.

Banks also says the regime should include corporate lobbyists as well as third-party firms such as Hawker Britton.

The managing director of Hawker Britton, Simon Banks, wants greater transparency from lobbyists.

The managing director of Hawker Britton, Simon Banks, wants greater transparency from lobbyists.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

National Advisory lobbyist David Quilty says the key issue is compliance and enforcement of the fundamental rule that requires all lobbyists to register, disclose their clients and only talk to government ministers and officials after revealing these details.

“That rule is a very good rule but it needs to be enforced and complied with, so there are repercussions for those who don’t comply,” Quilty says.

Executive Counsel owner Jannette Cotterell, a lobbyist for many years, says in-house lobbyists should also be registered and there should be more disclosure.

Cotterell says a change of government usually brings an influx of new lobbyists with ties to the party in power, but she believes those who are too close to a political party may not deliver the best results.

“If your driving force is to get a political party in or out of government, you can’t possibly put your clients’ interests first,” Cotterell says. “I’ve seen this with Liberals, and now with Labor. You can’t regulate that kind of conflict – it just is.”

Others could not disagree more. “Governments are complex beasts to navigate,” says one lobbyist and former Labor adviser. Australian business is highly regulated and will always need help with that complexity, especially from those who have worked on the inside.

Provided, of course, the outcome is in the public interest.

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