SO there’s this minister in Queensland whose son is a lobbyist who may or may not have made approaches to his dad’s office which his dad may or may not have asked him not to do.
So far, the confusing back-and-forth regarding Public Works Minister Bruce Flegg‘s department’s dealings with son Jonathan have failed to reveal any improper conduct on anyone’s behalf, besides an accusation that Mr Flegg had failed to disclose some meetings which he had promised to do.
While this entire circus is probably not the sort thing which keeps many Queenslanders up at night, it should. But not because Mr Flegg may or may not have done something he shouldn’t.
But rather, because it shows just how opaque the state’s lobbying system is to voters. The state has hundreds of lobbyists, working for hundreds of firms paid by hundreds of businesses, some of them among the biggest in the country.
But what they do, how much they are paid and the influence they are having on public policies is as close to a mystery as any of Scooby-Doo’s many encounters.
But as I wrote earlier this year, the system has some fundamental flaws. While its existence may give the public the impression that the system is open and transparent, it simply is not.
Firstly, the lobby register won’t tell you which lobbyist is lobbying for which company or organisation. Because most lobbying companies employ several lobbyists and have several clients, it isn’t possible to tell who is working for whom.
There are exceptions, though. For example, David Moore is listed as the sole lobbyist for lobbying company Next Level Holdings Ltd, which works for companies including Shell, Fujitsu, GVK Hancock, Metrocoal, Stanmore Coal, Optus and many others.
Before the last Queensland election, David Moore was the Chief of Staff to Jeff Seeney, who at the time was the leader of the opposition.
Back in August, Mr Seeney’s relationship with Mr Moore was criticised by mining magnate Clive Palmer, who was smarting that rival resource company GVK Hancock had won the right to build a rail network servicing coal mines in the Galilee and Bowen basins.
This led to counter accusations from Premier Campbell Newman that Mr Palmer had been trying to use his LNP contacts to gain mettings with himself and senior ministers.
A second flaw in the opaque world of lobbying, is that the public can’t see which piece of legislation a particular lobbyist or lobbying company is working on, how much they are paid, who they have met or how often.
As I pointed out on the ABC’s The Drum, these are all provisions which exist in other democracies.The UK Government, for example, publishes quarterly lists of all the meetings which ministers have had with companies and organisations. The US Senate lobby register gives extensive detail, including how much a lobbyist is paid, who they speak to and what issues they are lobbying on.
The current issue facing Mr Flegg surrounds what he did or did not write on a form where ministers are asked to record meetings with lobbyists. But again, while these forms are required to be kept by law, they are not open to public scrutiny.
The Global Mail reporter Sharona Coutts discovered this to her frustration in a recent story on the lobbying influences of mining magnate Gina Rinehart. Even though the Queensland Government keeps records of meetings between ministers, departmental staff and lobbyists, the public can’t actually see them. They’re secret.
But Queensland is not alone here. Other state lobby registers and the Federal lobby register all suffer from the same inadequacies. None of them record lobbyists employed directly by companies. There are an estimated 4000 of these “in-house” lobbyists and what they do each day is even less transparent.
Spending a few hours surveying and cross referencing the names on the Queensland Lobbyists Register reveals a host of former political or Governmental staffers, and even former ministers, now working as lobbyists – many of them for major fossil fuel and resources companies.
It is a phenomenon known as the revolving lobby door, where former aides or high ranking government officers leave their posts to lobby on behalf of big businesses, either as professional lobbyists or as in-house industry representatives.
Now, most politicians will tell you that lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic process.
But when it occurs behind closed doors, in secret and without any meaningful way for the public to scrutinise the activities of lobbyists or the powerful politicians and civil servants they are trying to influence, then this opaque system cheapens our democracy and cheapens our vote.