Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (5.56 p.m.)-Firstly, I thank the committee secretariat for their work on this report and this inquiry and also congratulate them for their creativity with the title of this report, which is Knock knock … who’s there? Congratulations to them for that. I also acknowledge Senator Polley’s fine chairmanship of the committee.
On this occasion, opposition senators are submitting a minority report, but in doing so there is certainly no question that ministerial probity and transparency are essential pillars of our democracy. The coalition shares the view that public confidence in the integrity of government is vital to the effective functioning of our parliamentary system, but the government proposal for a Lobbying Code of Conduct is seriously flawed. I must express some disappointment at this point in Senator Faulkner, who has responsibility for the Lobbying Code of Conduct. It is genuine disappointment, because I am someone who had high hopes for Senator Faulkner. I am someone on this side of the chamber who has often said to his colleagues that he believes Senator Faulkner does genuinely care about standards in government and about probity and propriety in the administration of government. But I must confess that I have steadily become disappointed: firstly, with Senator Faulkner’s failure to ensure that charter letters were issued to ministers; secondly, with his stalling and never-ending monologues in Senate estimates; and, thirdly, with his handling of the CMAX affair. I would have hoped that Senator Faulkner would have ensured that the relevant staff were stood aside, but the government staffing committee has taken no action, took some four or five months to conduct their inquiries and have now stalled those in the face of the Auditor-General’s report. That is a third source of disappointment with Senator Faulkner, and this lobbying code is the fourth.
The register, as proposed, does contravene the principle of equality before the law by unfairly preferencing one sector of the business community over another. This, I believe, is a partisan attempt to protect the political influence of the trade union movement. As I say, this code is fundamentally flawed. The code totally ignores in-house lobbyists employed by unions, industry associations and corporations. Indeed, there is nothing in this code or its provisions that would prevent the disgraced former Western Australian Premier Brian Burke from lobbying in the ministerial wing of parliament as an in-house advocate on the payroll of a union or a company-absolutely nothing.
The code also invests in the Cabinet Secretary, Senator Faulkner, an arbitrary power to exclude lobbyists from the register, with no practical avenue of appeal. The only avenue of appeal open to lobbyists who are excluded would be the High Court and possibly the Federal Court, at great expense. This would potentially have very crippling consequences for lobbying firms, the majority of which are small businesses. This power invested in Senator Faulkner also poses the serious risk that the code could be used for partisan political purposes rather than for the dispassionate regulation of an industry.
It is for these reasons that opposition senators have three primary recommendations. The first is:
That the Cabinet Secretary’s powers to exclude a lobbyist from the register be devolved to the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
It is a function which is much more appropriately vested in a senior public servant than a partisan political figure. The second main recommendation is that any decision ‘to exclude an individual or entity from the register should be subject to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, to ensure that legal recourse is not cost prohibitive’ for a small business. The third primary recommendation is that ‘coverage of the code be expanded to embrace unions, industry associations and other businesses’ which conduct their own lobbying activities.
There clearly is no widespread concern about, or crisis of public confidence in, the probity of Commonwealth governance or institutions. But, if the aim of this code is to prevent the occurrence in the federal jurisdiction of episodes such as those witnessed with the likes of disgraced former Premier Brian Burke and the Wollongong development scandal in New South Wales, then this code fails that test. This code, in unamended form, will fail to achieve its stated purpose and could create a cure which is far worse than the disease.
Opposition senators have proposed a couple of other amendments to the code. One is:
That post-employment restrictions on MOPS staff be removed from the Code.
This is, in effect, a retrospective change to the employment conditions of MOP staff-and I am in wholehearted agreement with the CPSU on this matter, I regret to say.
Senator Ronaldson-They are right.
Senator FIFIELD-As Senator Ronaldson says, they are right. The other matter that needs to be cleaned up is the status of the question-and-answer section on the PM&C website-that is, whether or not this constitutes part of the code. There is an out here for lobbyists, who could say, ‘Well, we’ve satisfied the code itself,’ even if their actions were contrary to the Q&A section of the PM&C website. So its status needs to be clarified. Finally, opposition senators are of the view:
That the Code should not be expanded to apply to non-executive members of either House of Parliament nor to non-ministerial MOPS staff.
There should be nothing which stands in the way of the capacity of constituents and the public to communicate with their elected representatives. That expansion of the code is something which we do not support.
It is no surprise that the sole government recommendation in this report is for yet another review. We probably do not have too much trouble with that but we do recommend that our amendments to the code be accepted so that this can be a properly functioning and effective code.