Audit office slams Attorney-General’s Department for lobbying code of conduct inaction

By Shannon Jenkins

June 29, 2020

CPSU points the finger at Services Australia’s insecure workforce for contributing to the government’s unlawful robodebt scheme.
CPSU points the finger at Services Australia’s insecure workforce arrangements for contributing to the government’s unlawful robodebt scheme. (Image: Adobe/Rafael Ben-Ari)

The Attorney-General’s Department has made little effort to implement past recommendations related to the government’s lobbying code of conduct, the national auditor-general has found.

A follow-up audit report released on Friday was in response to major problems with the handling the federal government’s lobbying code of conduct and lobbyist register, which were initially identified by the Australian National Audit Office back in 2018.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was accountable for administering the code at the time, but that responsibility was handed to AGD following a machinery of government change later that year.

ANAO had made recommendations to PM&C regarding governance processes for the implementation of recommendations, and the need to evaluate the sufficiency of the current regulatory regime for lobbying.

PM&C only partly agreed, with its then-secretary Martin Parkinson stating that “some elements of the recommendation are better suited to a legislatively-based regime” that would regulate all lobbyists.

Read more: PM&C shrugs off audit of toothless federal lobbying rules

AGD has not implemented the recommendation from the previous audit, ANAO found, and governance arrangements to oversee the implementation of the recommendation were “limited in effectiveness”.

There was also “no implementation planning at any stage” when accountability was handed to AGD, with progress against the recommendation reported to the AGD Audit and Risk Management Committee for the first time in August 2019.

The report noted AGD failed to:

  • develop an awareness strategy for government and lobbyists,
  • systematically assess risks to compliance with the code,
  • advise government about the sufficiency of the current compliance framework in meeting objectives,
  • develop an evaluation framework for the code,
  • develop performance measures,
  • assess or inform others about whether the current regime is achieving the regulatory objectives.

The auditor-general called on AGD establish effective governance processes for the implementation of the recommendation.

“This includes ensuring appropriate senior management engagement; that responsible officers understand the recommendation’s intent; and that an implementation plan with achievable activities and milestones is in place,” the report said.

After evaluating the sufficiency of the regulatory regime for lobbying, AGD should also advise government on whether the regime promotes public trust in the integrity of government processes through “ensuring that contact between lobbyists and government representatives is conducted in accordance with public expectations of transparency, integrity and honesty”.

The department accepted both recommendations.

“The department recognises the challenges that have been experienced by stakeholders as a result of significant IT issues during the transfer of responsibility for the lobbyists register from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,” it said.

“The department has focussed its efforts during this time on ensuring there is a reliable public-facing register. The department has worked to support lobbyists during the transition and appreciates the patience and support of lobbyists through the transition.”

Greens senate leader Larissa Waters said the follow-up audit confirmed the government has “ignored” ANAO’s previous warnings.

She said strong enforceable standards were needed to “protect against the culture of cosiness” in lobbying.

“Last week, we learned that Senator Colbeck met with alcohol lobbyists, and then postponed action on warning labels. This was just the most recent example – the influence peddled by industry lobbyists is rife and it undermines democracy,” she said.

“The Greens will keep pushing for tougher regulation of lobbyists, a ban on dirty donations and an independent federal corruption watchdog with teeth.”

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