The Liberal factional powerbroker-lobbyists disaster in NSW now belongs to Malcolm Turnbull. Failure to prevent the exercise of lobbyist power in, for example, influencing the selection of Liberal Senate candidates for the recent federal election, is due to his Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet’s ineffectual administering of the Lobbyists Code that was supposed to clean up this problem. It is now up to him to fix it – and quickly. Serious voter disenchantment with NSW Liberals clearly emerged in July’s 3.82 per cent negative swing resulting in a NSW Liberal loss to Labor of seven seats (out of 15 Australia-wide – with none in Victoria where the swing as only 1.6 per cent).
Fixing it should be either by removing the environment in which lobbyist-factional-warriors thrive, by demanding that a reluctant state executive activate the John Howard committee’s recommendations to give grass roots party members the right to have a democratic say in who their endorsed candidates should be, or correcting the present ludicrously inadequate governmental rules about lobbyists.
The present mess arises from the failure of Turnbull’s own Department, PM&C, to implement the clearly stated intentions of his predecessor Tony Abbott’s Lobbyists code. Abbott’s concern then, as now, was the clear potential for conflict of interest in a factional powerbroker-lobbyist being involved in selecting candidates for parliament who may feel under an obligation when the lobbyist approaches them, once elected, for political favours on behalf of paying clients. When Abbott (along with NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell) decreed that lobbyists could no longer double as political powerbrokers seeking to influence party policies (and parliamentary preselections), the bureaucrats turned the federal lobbyist code, as written and administered by PM&C, into a bad joke. Showing a typical Canberra unawareness of the real world, they unwisely relied entirely on prohibiting lobbyists from holding selected stated positions within political parties (and even did that incompetently) rather than directing the ban at lobbyists’ actions, such as being involved in any way in the exercise of political power, particularly their actively influencing who should be selected for election to parliament – a clear breach of the intention of the code. As revealed in a recent letter to me from the PM’s Department, the prohibition on lobbyists holding executive positions does not extend to them acting as proxies for holders of these very same executive positions in, for example, parliamentary preselections. The wording is such, PM&C says, that there was no breach of these poorly drafted federal regulations when I lodged a breach notice that two factional war-lord lobbyists determined, by their votes as proxies for members of state executive, who should be selected to winnable positions on the 2016 Liberal Senate ticket. The regulations would need to be significantly amended to meet the stated intentions of the lobbyists code.
This breach is evident from the code’s purpose of being ‘intended to promote trust in the integrity of government processes and ensure that contact between lobbyists and Government representatives is conducted in accordance with public expectations of transparency, integrity and honesty. Lobbyists and Government representatives are expected to comply with the requirements of the Lobbying Code of Conduct in accordance with their spirit, intention and purpose’. However, the PM’s Department is administering the code in a manner that permits, in a remarkable interpretation of ‘in accordance with their spirit, intention and purpose’, lobbyists who are banned from being members of the NSW state executive of the Liberal Party to act as proxies for them! The Prime Minister, to whom I first wrote about this problem back in April, could fix this regulatory mess right now – if he has the will to confront the factional powerbroker-lobbyists to do so.
Unlike PM&C, the NSW state authority entrusted with implementing the lobbyists code, the NSW Electoral Commission, is actively pursuing my notification that, ‘In breach of the code’s requirements, Michael Photios and Nick Campbell, both listed on the lobbyists register under Premier State, acted as proxies for members of the State Executive of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party of Australia (ie its managing body) in exercising the duties of state executive members by voting to select candidates for Liberal Party nomination for Senators in the federal parliament’. Like the federal lobbyists’ code, NSW sets out ‘ethical standards… to promote transparency, integrity and honesty’ but also decrees that ‘a person who holds any position concerned with the management of a political party cannot be on the Lobbyists Register’. The key words are ‘any position’ with the issue being whether selecting its candidates is a function of the ‘management of a political party’. As the primary purpose of the Liberal Party organisation is to select and support the election of Liberal members of parliament, any lobbyist acting as a preselector would clearly appear to be in breach of the NSW code. In any event, lobbyists are specifically prohibited from being members of state executive (one of whose duties is to participate in Senate preselections). So it would be in unquestionable conflict with the intention of the NSW code for lobbyists to be permitted act as proxies for positions they are prohibited from occupying.
Correcting the evident gaps that prevent the proper implementation of Abbott’s original declaration that you can either be a lobbyist or a factional leader, but not both, is vital for the credibility of the Liberal Party. The exercise of factional power, particularly in NSW, has an even uglier edge than in the Labor Party. In Labor it is bad enough that factional political interests take precedence over the Party’s best interests, but in the Liberal Party, the role of lobbyists as self-confessed dominant factional warlords is tainted with the potential for commercial financial benefit to corrupt the process. This is not simply through initial pre-selection support but also in the need for parliamentarians to retain that support for re-endorsement at subsequent elections. So long as preselections in NSW continue to be dominated by factional power-brokers while Liberal Party members at large continue to be denied the right to vote to select their local candidates in plebiscites, there is clearly a need for the Party, which in NSW imposes no restraint on lobbyists’ powers, no longer to leave the lobbyist issue to governments, but to fill the present moral void in its own rules by introducing prohibitions on lobbyists taking an active role in its key activities, particularly preselections.