Demand for details of lobbies' glad-handing
A former senior federal bureaucrat says lobbyists should be forced to reveal their private discussions with ministers and government workers.
Decisions continue to be made under the influence of powerful vested interests in backroom meetings, and former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet John Menadue says it is a stain on democratic rights.
There are now more than 900 full-time independent lobbyists working in Canberra, more than 30 to press their views on each cabinet minister.
“Lobbying has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in Canberra,” Mr Menadue told the Canberra Times this week.
“It now represents a growing and serious corruption of good governance and the development of sound public policy.
“Action to assert the public interest in the face of powerful vested interests is necessary on many fronts. The problem is urgent.”
Mr Menadue has been on both sides of the business-government relationship.
He worked as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, and was at various points ambassador to Japan, head of the Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Department, CEO of Qantas, general manager of News Ltd and founding member of public interest think tank, the Centre for Policy Development.
Mr Menadue’s criticism covers everyone from miners to Murdoch.
“Just think what the Minerals Council of Australia did to subvert public discussion on the Resources Super Profits Tax and the activities of Clubs Australia to thwart gambling reforms or the polluters over the emissions trading scheme and the carbon tax,” he said.
“With its lobbying power over the major parties, the hotel lobby at the state level effectively determines hotel operating hours.
“With journalism under-resourced, the media depends increasingly on the propaganda and promotion put into the public arena by these vested interests.
“With more than 60 per cent of metropolitan newspaper circulation in Australia, News Ltd is a major obstacle to informed debate on key public issues like climate change.”
He says even the basics of policy-making itself has been hi-jacked by lobbies.
“Many of the policy skills in Canberra have been downgraded and much of the policy work is now in the hands of young staff in ministers' offices that are much more inclined to listen to vested interests,” Mr Menadue said.
“Policy work within the government is now undertaken more in specialist organisations such as the Productivity Commission rather than in the departments.
“Departmental policy capability has been seriously denuded.”
Currently, there is a requirement for federal lobbyists to be registered with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but Menadue says this is not nearly enough.
“They should also be obliged to promptly, publicly and accurately disclose the discussions and meetings they have had with ministers, shadow ministers and senior public servants,” he says.
“A public interest impact statement prepared by an independent and professional body should accompany all proposals by special interest groups.
“Departments such as Health that are so influenced by special interests should have different governance arrangements.
“The traditional minister/departmental model in Health is a happy hunting ground for vested interests that significantly influence outcomes in health.
“The Reserve Bank, composed of independent and professional persons, has shown the benefit of such governance arrangements in keeping vested interests at bay and promoting an informed public debate.”
Menadue made the comments on lobbyists ahead of the release of a collection of essays titled ‘Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?’