Norman Thompson, New Matilda, 28 February 2012
The laws around political donations have been tightened up across Australia but we still lag when it comes to regulating lobbyists. Norman Thompson on the lessons we can learn from lobbying scandals overseas
In 2002 I was chosen to direct the NSW Greens Democracy4Sale research project. We explored the millions of dollars of political donations that flowed into the coffers of political parties from various industry groups and all the influence and access it gave donors to members of the NSW government.
During that time I came to realise that we were only dealing with one aspect of the impact of money on political outcomes. As the influential American interpreter of world affairs William Pfaff wrote late last year, political donations and lobbying are closely related and have a very negative impact on the machinery of politics.
Lobbying companies make large donations to the political parties. Lobbyists attend fundraisers at which they can sit next to a government minister and push their clients’ case for special favours. Political donations and lobbying activity are intimately linked.
Pressure for reform of the electoral funding system has grown as the NSW public learned more about the corrupting influence of political contributions. Several large scandals added to the sense of urgency: first the Labor government then the Coalition made major, positive changes to the system. Barry O’Farrell’s move to restrict union funding to political parties is only the latest in a longer program of reform.
In sharp contrast there is little attention to the dark, murky world of the lobbyists and their influence on governmental decisions. One reason for this is that there haven’t been major scandals involving lobbyists here, unlike in the US and the UK. Perhaps all lobbyists in Australia are pure unlike some of their British and American counterparts. Or, more likely, Australian investigative journalists with a few notable exceptions haven’t focused on this area of political influence.
There are lessons to be learned from the scandals involving lobbyists overseas and ways to ensure we can avoid such unethical behaviour in Australia. I’m certain that the vast majority of lobbyists only engage in ethical behaviour, but unfortunately it appears a small minority of lobbyists are rogue operators, and some engage in criminal behaviour — at least in the USA and UK.
Last year it was estimated that there were more than 12,600 registered federal lobbyists based in Washington, D.C. They spend huge amounts of money on their work. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, they spent up to $3.3 billion in 2011.
In 2004 a scandal involving the lobbying activities of one Jack Abramoff unfolded that would end with him serving time in prison along with a congressman and a number of congressional staff members.
Abramoff had developed important links to influential members of the Republican Party from his undergraduate days. He became deft at influencing legislation as a lobbyist. One of his strategies was to get Indian tribes to make substantial campaign contributions to select members of Congress — here we see the direct relation between lobbying and political donations.
Things began to fall apart for Abramoff in late 2004 when the US Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate Abramoff’s lobbying on behalf of American Indian tribes and casinos. He was convicted in 2006 of defrauding American Indian tribes and the corruption of public officials and was sent to prison. In 2008, a Washington court found Abramoff guilty of trading expensive gifts, meals and sports trips in exchange for political favours, and he was sentenced to a four-year term in prison, to be served concurrently with his previous sentences. He was released from prison in June 2010.
In addition, Abramoff spent large sums of money providing congressmen with free flights to the world’s best golf destinations, such as St Andrews in Scotland. He provided them with free meals at his upscale Washington restaurant Signatures, and the best tickets to all of the area’s sporting events. He said he spent a million dollars a year on those tickets.
According to Abramoff, the best way to get a congressional office to be responsive to his demands was to offer a staffer a job that could triple his salary saying, "You know, when you are done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us."
From that moment, said Abramoff, "I owned them". They were going to do everything that he requested. Abramoff estimates that he had very strong influence in 100 Republican offices in Congress.
Abramoff took down a number of people with him, including the Republican Congressman from Ohio, Bob Ney, and nine other lobbyists and Congressional aides.
Jack Abramoff has written an autobiography, Capitol Punishment, in which he reveals his insider knowledge of corrupt federal political practices in the US. He portrays himself as someone who supports genuine reform and gives recommendations for reform of the laws around lobbying.
After he was released from prison, Abramoff gave a fascinating interview to 60 minutes in the US late last year. The presenter, Leslie Stahel, appears to be as truly shocked by what he had to say about his practices as a lobbyist.
After the Abramoff scandal, the US Congress did pass sweeping new ethics rules. Although the bill regulating lobbyists’ activities incorporated the Lobbying Transparency Act of 2006 legislation which governs lobbyists’ activities, some senators and a coalition of good-government groups stated that the bill was too weak.
Abramoff certainly agrees that these reforms aren’t effective. He clearly states they are mainly window dressing in his CBS TV interview.
Some of Abramoff’s suggestions for reform reflect his quite conservative view of the role of government. However, there is one that has great merit. He believes that all elected members of government and their staff should be permanently banned from paid lobbying activity after they leave their public positions.
This makes a great deal of sense. Those people who have been at the centre of federal and state governments have many close contacts with current members of government. They also know their way around the system and how to exert influence.
I seriously doubt any government in Australia would introduce such a ban. Lobbying is too lucrative for former politicians and especially for their ex-advisers. Even so, it is a worthy goal for the public in Australia to work toward.