The report is likely to strengthen calls for reform of the Canberra lobbyist system, an idea backed by the Senate crossbench. Former Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie was a key advocate of reform before she resigned last year.
The register and the lobbyist code of conduct are meant to establish clear rules of engagement for politicians and lobbyists. The auditor general describes the system as a “key part of the Australian government’s ethical infrastructure”.
But the system does not apply to all lobbyists – only those who belong to third-party organisations. That means that of the roughly 5000 lobbyists working across the country, only 566 actually appear on the register.
It has other shortcomings too. As the report notes the system “does not, on its own, provide transparency into the integrity of contact between lobbyists and government representatives or the matters discussed”.
In some Australian states, legislation establishes mandatory standards and requirements around lobbyists and supports regulators to impose penalties on those who do not comply, but that is not the case federally.
The federal register is not enshrined in legislation, and is considered an “administrative initiative, not a regulatory regime”.
The report found the department only delivers a “low level of compliance activity” but that is not its failing: rather, it reflects the original decision of the Rudd government, which established the register in 2008.
The effectiveness of the department’s compliance monitoring “has been reduced by the lack of strategy around advice to government representatives of their compliance monitoring responsibilities,” the report found.
The report also found the department had not established “effective performance monitoring and reporting arrangements”.
It recommends a strategy to raise the lobbying community’s awareness of the code of conduct. It also calls for better “due diligence arrangements” relating to former government representatives who move into lobbying.
A six-year-old recommendation by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee to improve transparency by informing the public of breaches of the code has not yet been implemented.
“Assurance that contact between lobbyists and government representatives has been conducted in accordance with public expectations of transparency, integrity and honesty has been limited to departmental responses to questions, in particular about alleged breaches of the code, at Senate estimates,” the report found.
Adam Gartrell is the health and industrial relations correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House
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