The New South Wales corruption watchdog has called for secret meetings between lobbyists and state government officials to be banned following an investigation into the regulation of lobbying.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption has found, in its latest report on Operation Eclipse, that the Lobbying of Government Officials Act 2011 (LOGO Act) doesn’t give a robust framework for managing corruption risks.
“It does not provide the required level of assurance to the general public that democratic principles of transparency, accountability, integrity and fairness are being met,” it said.
“New legislation, or significant reform of the LOGO Act, is required to safeguard the public interest against the inherent lobbying risks of corruption and undue influence.”
ICAC chief commissioner Peter Hall said lobbying can lead to positive outcomes when it is conducted ethically and honestly. However, it can also result in favouritism or corrupt conduct.
“The LOGO Act, while a step in the right direction, falls short of implementing all of the 17 recommendations made by the commission more than 10 years ago in its previous lobbying investigation, Operation Halifax,” he said.
“In Operation Eclipse, the ICAC has made a further 29 recommendations to address this shortfall and to better regulate lobbying practices in NSW.”
Among the recommendations, ICAC has called for the creation of a dedicated NSW lobbying commissioner to regulate the LOGO Act, and for the Lobbyists Code of Conduct to be expanded and renamed as the ‘Lobbying Code of Conduct’.
Meanwhile, any fundraising event where an attendee pays for any form of exclusive or private access to a minister should be classified as a ‘scheduled meeting’, and should be disclosed.
Undocumented or secret meetings with lobbyists should be banned, and all communications with lobbyists should be documented.
One of the commission’s key findings was that ‘there is insufficient information available to the public, civil society groups and the media about lobbying activities’. ICAC noted that only third-party lobbyists are required to register, despite carrying out a fraction of the lobbying in the state. In light of this, ICAC has recommended that a broader range of lobbyists be required to register — particularly professional in-house lobbyists.
Other key findings include that lobbying is common in local government, lobbyists are not prohibited from giving gifts to government officials, and recordkeeping practices in relation to lobbying activities are inadequate.
Further, the movement of former public officials between the government sector and lobbying roles is currently unregulated.
“In NSW, post-employment cooling-off periods are generally confined to ministers and parliamentary secretaries. Other classes of public officials, including members of Parliament, ministerial staff and senior public sector executives, do not face the same restrictions,” ICAC noted.
“The commission’s view is that post-employment restrictions should be considered for a broader range of officials in high-risk categories.”
To increase transparency, ICAC has recommended that a list containing the names of relevant former public officials who have moved into lobbying roles be established.