We need lobbyists, but how can we make sure they’re doing the right thing?

The longer a government is in office, the easier it is for critics to cry cronyism when it comes to lobbyists. The solution? Why doesn’t the government move lobbying in house suggests Robert MacDonald.

Feb 28, 2022, updated Feb 28, 2022
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk badly needs to take control of some looming landmines. (AAP Image/Darren England)

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk badly needs to take control of some looming landmines. (AAP Image/Darren England)

Thirty years ago, I missed my chance to make a lot of money.

I’d been working in Premier Wayne Goss’s office for four-and-a-half years and was ready for a change.

I could have become a lobbyist. Well-connected lobbyists are always in high demand.

There are 129 companies listed on the Queensland Government’s Register of Lobbyists, introduced by then-Premier Anna Bligh in 2009.

The most successful, at least in raw client numbers, are firms run by people with deep links to the Labor Party, such as former ALP state secretaries and political advisors, Evan Moorhead and Cameron Milner.

Their companies each have more than 35 clients, many more than most of the other listed lobbyists.

I was certainly well connected when I left Goss’s office in 1994.  I was a government insider and a gatekeeper, a first port of call for businesspeople wanting to meet Goss.

I’d dealt with hundreds of them, from blue-chip company executives to entrepreneurs, spivs, dreamers, idealists and carpetbaggers.

I’m sure at least some of them would have paid me to jump the fence and lobby on their behalf.

But I missed the freedom of my first career, journalism. I also had in mind that living off your government connections would only last as long as the next change in government.

I shouldn’t have been so cautious. Labor has been in office for 25 of the past 30 years.

Presumably, that has meant continuing good business for those lobbyists with the right political and ministerial connections.

But it’s also raised some real problems.

The longer the relationship between incumbent governments and well-connected lobbyists, the easier it is for outsiders and critics to raise claims of cronyism and favouritism, with or without solid evidence.

And that’s where the Palaszczuk Government finds itself at the moment – trying to deal with a still-hazy “integrity crisis”, some of it centred around its relationship with lobbyists.

Palaszczuk has played down the role of lobbyists who she correctly says, are subject to strict disclosure rules about who they meet in government and who they’re representing.

But she’s still felt the need to ask former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor, Peter Coaldrake to head a review of “culture and accountability in the Queensland public sector”.

That’s to say, she knows she’s got a problem.

But it’s not an easy problem to solve.

During my time in Goss’s office, as a middleman between politicians and support-seeking private sector pleaders, two things quickly became clear:

The first was that many politicians and their minders knew very little about how the private sector worked.

And conversely, many in the private sector had very little idea about how politicians and their public servants actually functioned.

You definitely needed a translator, someone who could work as an intermediary to make sure both sides understood each other.

Which is where well-connected lobbyists come in.

But how do you make sure you don’t end up with the problem Palaszczuk now faces – that those well-connected lobbyists do such an effective job for their clients, critics raise claims of favouritism and special deals?

It’s not a new problem. Anna Bligh faced similar accusations more than a decade ago – that outsiders, many of them ex-Labor politicians, were buying access and influence for their clients.

Her response, among other things, was to establish the register of lobbyists, which, today, lets us know that those firms with strong Labor connections are doing pretty well.

The only idea I’ve come up with is why doesn’t the government move the job of lobbying in-house.

That’s to say, why not have a specialist team of public servants with the job of advising and helping private sector supplicants looking for government help.

Call them case managers or something similar but make them the private sector’s friend in court, so to speak.

It wouldn’t work of course. Today’s public servants are buried under so much legislation aimed at enforcing ethics and integrity, it’s nearly impossible for them to show much problem-solving initiative.

Also, there are plenty of well-connected and successful lobbyists doing very well out of the current arrangements who presumably would be lobbying for things to stay the way they are.







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