THERE’S a revolving door outside state and federal government offices that has been spinning for decades.

Entering the door are former ministers, MPs, senior advisers and public servants with years of experience behind them on the intestine-like inner workings of governments, politics and policy making.

As they exit the door, many become part of the opaque and mostly unreported world of corporate and industry lobbying.

Treasurer Wayne Swan has publicly questioned the power and influence wielded by vested interests in the mining and resources industries.

In his recent essay for The Monthly, Mr Swan chose to name three people in particular – Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forest – as representing this undue power which is shaping public policy for the narrowest of interests.

Vested interests had worked together to undermine climate policy and mining taxation, he wrote.  Australia’s success was in “jeopardy”, vested interests were a “poison” threatening the future prosperity of the “great mass of good hearted Australians”.

Mr Swan picked on a small number of super-rich mining magnates, leaving multi-billion dollar corporations and industries that work equally as hard for their own interests wondering what they’d done to escape the Treasurer’s wrath.

The essay was brave and most likely, in my view, broadly accurate. But it was heavy on the rhetoric and light on solutions.

Mr Swan could have taken the opportunity to call for more transparency and openness in the systems that regulate lobbying and political donations.

He could have supported the calls in the just-closed Senate inquiry into lobbying for stronger oversight of lobbyists.

He did neither.

Yet it is the same industries that Mr Swan is criticising – fossil fuels and resource extraction – that can afford to scoop up the talent from the public service and put them to work in a system that allows them to operate largely unseen.

There are 293 companies listed on the Federal Government’s lobby register. The number of individual lobbyists registered is well over 600.

This is on top of the lobby registers in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.

All these registers list the names of lobbyists, the companies they work for and the corporate clients and groups their company is paid to represent.

But as a way for the public or journalists to understand for sure who is lobbying for which corporate causes, the register is only useful if you have a lobbying company with one lobbyist, advocating for one client. There are very few, if any, of those.

For example, one of the 293 lobby companies registered with the Federal Government is Government Relations Australia.  GRA declares 25 lobbyists on the federal register, of which 10 are identified as having previously worked in government.

GRA lobbies federally on behalf of 65 clients, including many major fossil fuel and resources companies, coal infrastructure projects and a solar energy company.

There are several political spinners who have worked for state or federal ministers or opposition front benchers on the GRA team.  For example, one GRA lobbyist is Alex Cramb, who has previously advised both Kevin Rudd and former NSW Premier Nathan Rees.

In the case of GRA, and every other lobby firm, the register doesn’t disclose which lobbyist is working for which company and how much time or money is spent working for each client.

The register doesn’t say which issue they’re lobbying about, who they’ve met, or how often. If this all sounds like a bit too much to ask, then you’d be wrong.

The US Senate lobby register shows the name of the lobbyist, the firm they work for, the amount they are paid, the issues they work on and which federal agencies they communicate with.

Yet Australia’s lobby registers tell only a fraction of the story of the extent of lobbying in this country. The registers don’t capture the 4000 or so “in-house” lobbyists employed by corporations and industry groups, which the Australian Senate inquiry heard are out there.

But the US lobby register does include the details of “in-house” lobbying – that is, the work done by companies who employ their own lobbyists.

What that means is it’s possible to know by searching the US Senate lobby records that – for example – Chevron USA Inc spent US$9.51 million on lobbying in 2011.

So in Australia, we have about 4000 lobbyists working every day, speaking to ministers and senior public servants and policy makers, seemingly without any record of this activity appearing anywhere.

There’s also no way of knowing, without issuing potentially expensive Freedom of Information requests, who ministers are meeting with and how often.

In the UK, government departments publish quarterly reports showing which organisations, or media representatives, ministers have met with. The details are scant, but at least some information is there.

Whenever the spotlight turns to lobbying or any kind, the cry that comes back in defence is that it’s a legitimate and healthy part of any democracy. This might be so, but in my view this can only be the case when that lobbying is transparent.

But what happens when super-rich companies are able to buy the knowledge and expertise of former ministers or civil servants? Does it actually matter?

The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption issued a report on the issue in 2010, making it clear that there was a potential for the democratic process to be undermined.

The report said: “The corruption risk is that those who are powerful or wealthy enough to understand how government works or to engage the services of someone who can navigate the decision-making maze on their behalf will exploit their position to their advantage and to the detriment of the public interest.”

Elsewhere, the report said there was a risk lobbyists “may build up relationships with public officials or exploit existing relationships in order to exert improper influence”.

Such influences are difficult to define. But lobby companies and industry groups will often brag about the knowledge, expertise and contacts among their staff and how these will help their success.

In December last year, it was announced that the New South Wales chief environmental regulator at the state’s Environmental Protection Authority, Greg Sullivan, had accepted a “new career challenge in the private sector”.

The new challenge was to become the deputy director of the Australian Coal Association, the industry’s main lobbying and representative group. He would take up his job, the ACA said, the very next month. ACA executive director Nikki Williams said Mr Sullivan’s “strategic capabilities and insight” would be valuable.

In a press release, the ACA, said Mr Sullivan, would “play a pivotal role in driving changes to the organisation’s approach to policy and advocacy on behalf of the Australian coal industry”.

This isn’t the first time the ACA has secured the services of formerly high-powered public servants.

From 1998 to 2002, Ralph Hillman was the Australian Government’s environment ambassador and chief negotiator on the Kyoto Protocol. Before that, he was Australia’s permanent representative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2007, Mr Hillman began a four-year stint as the ACA’s executive director.

Examples are everywhere of the mining and fossil fuel industries securing top talent and with it, the near priceless experience and contacts to help these industries expertly negotiate the labyrinth of environmental and climate change policy making.

From the ranks of advisors who once served former Prime Minister John Howard, there’s his former media advisor Ben Mitchell who now works for the mining industry lobby group the Minerals Council of Australia.

Mr Mitchell’s former colleague in that office, David Luff, is a regional head of media relations for Rio Tinto (John Howard’s nephew Lyall was a head of government relations at Rio Tinto before moving to BHP Billiton as a senior manager in government relations).

Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff during the 2007 general election, David Epstein, recently spent a year working for BHP as its head of public affairs.

Geoff Walsh, former adviser to Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke and a former national secretary of the Labor Party, was given a senior advisory role to BHP boss Marius Kloppers in 2010.

Elsewhere, there’s Claire Wilkinson, who spent a year as a senior media advisor for Resources Minister Martin Ferguson before getting a job as a senior external affairs advisor for Royal Dutch Shell.

Matthew Doman, a corporate communications manager for gas company Santos, used to work as a media advisor to Liberal Party powerbroker Nick Minchin and for the former Trade Minister Mark Vaile.

Brad Williams, who spent four years as Mark Vaile’s chief of staff, is currently the manager for government affairs at Inpex – an oil and gas company which recently won approval for a $34 billion LNG project near Darwin.

The list, if there was space, could go on and on.

Then there are the former state and federal government MPs and ministers who have strolled through the revolving lobby door in recent years to companies that include major resources industry corporations on their client lists.

Take former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, for example. Mr Downer is a registered lobbyist with Bespoke Approach, which includes the likes of Xstrata, Petrochina and Yancoal among its clients. Also at Bespoke is Nick Bolkus, a former minister in both the Hawke and Keating Governments.

Lobby company SAS Consulting includes two former ministers, Con Sciacca and Larry Anthony, and former MP Phil Barresi. Sciacca’s former Chief of Staff Luke Giribon also works at SAS, which includes gas and electricity company ERM Power and the group of companies owned by coal mining magnate Nathan Tinkler.

Also lobbying for GRA and its partner company GRA Everingham is John Dawkins, who left politics in 1984 after 18 years as an MP and minister.

None of this is wrong, of course.

But surely a fully transparent lobbying system would help the public to understand the extent of lobbying, especially on issues as important as the future of the climate and the state of the environment.

In his essay, Wayne Swan also highlighted the ability of big resources companies to find loose change to fund multi-million dollar advertising campaigns to oppose carbon price legislation and mining taxes.

Tony Abbott’s Liberal-led opposition has pledged to rescind both the government’s Minerals Resources Rent Tax and the carbon tax.

Analysis of political donations by Crikey journalist Bernard Keane has found a sudden and significant shift in donations to the Opposition from mining companies, who gave more than $3 million in 2010/11 to the Opposition compared to only about $100,000 going to Labor.

Now mining companies are of course free, under current rules, to give their money to whoever they like and spend whatever they want on political advertising.

But the time between money being spent on political activity and it being disclosed to the public through the Australian Electoral Commission is painfully slow.

Cash spent on political donations or political advertising in any tax year, doesn’t have to be disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission until after the end of the tax year. The AEC then publishes these disclosures at the beginning of February the following year.

Why should the public be exposed to the effects of industry-funded political or public campaigning instantly, but then have to wait as a long as 18 months to find out either who paid for it, or how much was spent?

There has been much speculation recently about the funding and income of think tanks engaged in public relations exercises to promote outlying views on human-caused climate change.

In the US, it’s possible to search tax forms of such organisations to get a handle on their funding streams. These forms are available free.

In Australia, if you want to inspect an annual financial document from a think-tank, then you have to pay a broker for the privilege of accessing that information, held by the Australian Securities and Investment Corporation.

In the UK, financial reports to the country’s Charity Commission are available to inspect online, free of charge.

In his essay, Wayne Swan said politicians had a choice between “standing up for workers and kneeling down at the feet of the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers”.

I’d say they have another choice. Give the Australian public the kind of transparency and openness in their democracy that they deserve.

Pic: Flickr/Christopher Chan


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