Introduction by Croakey: Recent media revelations about businessman Anthony Pratt’s strategies for cultivating political influence show the “urgent need to reform political funding laws”, according to a senior legal academic from the University of Melbourne.
Pratt’s strategies have included making large political donations, lobbying through meetings with ministers and their advisers, holding fundraisers at his mansion, and employing former senior political leaders such as Tony Abbott and Paul Keating.
Writing at The Conversation recently, Professor Joo-Cheong Tham from the Melbourne Law School welcomed the Federal Government’s commitment to wholesale reform of political finance laws, but said it left out one crucial area: the regulation of lobbying.
Meanwhile, public health researchers have highlighted the importance of such reforms, with a recent study documenting a distinct lack of transparency about the lobbying efforts of harmful industries.
“In the absence of detailed and timely information about who lobbyists meet with and why, the public is left in the dark,” they report.
Their paper, ‘Lobbying by omission: what is known and unknown about harmful industry lobbyists in Australia’, is published in Health Promotion International.
Jennifer Lacy-Nichols, Shirae Christie and Katherine Cullerton write:
It is hard to follow the money in Australia.
Lobbying is one strategy that businesses (and other interests) use to try to influence government decisions. Lobbying and political advocacy are legitimate activities in democracies.
The problem is that harmful industries can influence governments and hide it.
Around a year and a half ago, we thought it would be useful to map out which lobbyists were working for harmful industries in Australia – in the case of this study, alcohol, gambling, tobacco and ultra-processed foods.
We went through all lobbyist registers (available in all jurisdictions except Northern Territory) and manually extracted data from them. We ended up with more than 14,000 rows of data.
Lobbyist registers are like a digital phonebook. They have the names of lobby firms, lobbyists and clients (for example, companies that hire lobby firms).
But, in Australia, they leave a great deal to be desired.
- Most Australian lobbyist registers were difficult to search and gather data from
- Information about whether a lobbyist had worked in government was missing, incomplete or incorrect
- Gambling companies and industry associations hired the most lobby firms across Australia
- Tobacco companies were listed in the registers, despite Australia being party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (which, amongst other things, prohibits lobbying).
Ultimately, what was unknown about lobbying was far greater than what was known.
Internationally, Australia lags in transparency
Australia is not unique in having poor quality transparency about lobbying.
A global audit showed that only 19 of 109 countries surveyed provided public information about lobbyists.
To benchmark Australian lobbyist registers, we identified countries that had public lobbyist registers and documented the different types of information that they disclosed.
Of the 61 categories we identified, Australian registers provided information about nine on average, with Queensland providing the most information (13 categories – 21 percent).
We note that while no country provides information about all 61 categories, they illustrate the realm of possibility for comprehensive lobbying disclosures.
Only two registers (Queensland and South Australia) provided information about lobbyists’ meetings (and the SA register only shared a high-level annual report).
In the absence of detailed and timely information about who lobbyists meet with and why, the public is left in the dark.
Clumsy and disorganised
It was spectacularly challenging to extract, clean and match the data.
Matching the names of clients and lobbyists was especially time-consuming due to the lack of standardised spelling practices. In practice, this meant that some companies were spelled multiple different ways (for example, Philip Morris, Philip Morris Austraila). Likewise, we took steps to check whether lobbyist ‘John Smith’ was the same person as ‘John Adam Smith’ or ‘Jonathan Smith.’
We found a number of irregularities in the registers.
Inconsistent disclosure of former government employment stuck out to us, with 96 lobbyists stating that they both had, and had not, worked in government. We speculate this is more likely a simple mistake in entering data rather than any attempt to conceal a lobbyist’s background (especially as most of this information could be fairly easily confirmed).
However, it highlights the need for stronger enforcement and compliance measures, such as sanctions applied in other countries (for example, Canada).
Some of the gaps in Australian lobbyist registers are due to weak lobbying standards. Perhaps the most substantive weakness is that the registers only apply to ‘third party’ lobbyists (for example, professional lobbyists that may work on behalf of multiple clients).
This omits from the registers all in-house lobbyists (for example, a lobbyist hired directly by a company or trade association).
This narrow definition also means that rules to protect against conflicts of interest have an enormous loophole.
Like many countries, Australia imposes a ‘cooling off’ period when people leave government, where they cannot work as a lobbyist for a period of time (18 month or 12 months, depending on the position in government).
Yet with ‘lobbyist’ defined only as those working for professional lobbying firms, former government officials can move straight into consulting positions, government relations, advisory roles or others for companies and organisations in the sector they used to regulate. This is a huge risk for conflicts of interest.
Opportunities for improvement
Having spent months combing through the lobbyist registers and painstakingly confirming information, we propose the following recommendations to strengthen the registers and improve government transparency around lobbying:
- Clearly indicate which lobbyists work for which client (right now we only know the list of lobbyists and clients for each lobby firm, but not the relationships between lobbyists and clients).
- Provide detailed and timely contact logs for all lobbyist activities. Queensland offers a starting point for how this could be done (though it needs more detail about the purpose of the meeting). Internationally, Chile is an excellent example.
- To make the registers more easily searchable, each lobby firm, client and lobbyist could be assigned an identifier (for example, Australian Business Number, email address). This would enable comparisons within and across the registers.
- Include in-house lobbyists directly employed by companies.
Some of the most transformative and important reforms require changes to legislation to require more comprehensive disclosure.
There is tremendous opportunity for change and improvement in Australia.
The last year has shown substantial appetite for reform, with the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and recommendations to strengthen regulations of political donations.
Reform of lobbying is the natural next step.
We look forward to supporting greater transparency and disclosure of lobbying in Australia. The only way to make harmful industry influence visible is to make all influence visible.
This way, there is nowhere for harmful industries to hide.
Dr Jennifer Lacy-Nichols is a commercial determinants of health research fellow at the Centre for Health Policy, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne with a fellowship from the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. Her research explores strategies to systematically monitor corporate political practices, such as lobbying and political donations.
Shirae Christie, Centre for Health Policy, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
Dr Katherine Cullerton is a Research Fellow in the School of Public Health, The University of Queensland.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on the commercial determinants of health