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Morrison ditched Turnbull-era plans for greater transparency in political lobbying

Mr Morrison took over as Prime Minister on August 24. On September 12, Mr Porter wrote to Mr Morrison “responding to the initial request, and confirming it was withdrawn by agreement”.

Mr Porter would not provide the letters to The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age, saying they were cabinet documents. But he confirmed “a decision was made to defer proceeding with a legislative option” in order to first assess the impact on lobbyist behaviour of the FITS and the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

The government particularly wanted “to ensure there was not a duplication of regulation or an inconsistent overall regime”, Mr Porter said.

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison two days before Mr Turnbull was replaced as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison two days before Mr Turnbull was replaced as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The current regulatory regime was set up by Labor in 2008. It requires third-party lobbying firms to register, such as Crosby Textor and Hawker Britton, but not in-house lobbyists and industry associations, because their motives are assumed to be self-evident.

The ANAO audit – a follow-up to an audit it published in 2018 – again found major flaws in what it described as a “light touch” system. The Attorney-General’s Department’s own analysis showed the Code fully met just one of 10 principles for “transparency and integrity in lobbying” set down by the global Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The lobbyists’ register – essentially a spreadsheet naming lobbyists, their firms, clients and any previous connections to government – has also been plagued by technical failures. In September, a technical problem caused Mr Porter to wrongly tell Parliament there were 836 lobbyists on the register when in fact there were fewer than 600.

Auditors also lashed the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) for failing to use the compliance mechanisms at its disposal. At the end of January, there were 29 lobbyists on the register who had left government positions in the previous 12 months and were therefore prohibited from lobbying on certain topics. But the AGD only notified six of the 29 lobbyists about this prohibition.

Many lobbyists who appear on the register believe the system needs to be reviewed. Ian Smith, managing partner of Bespoke Approach and former adviser to Jeff Kennett, said the scheme was “terribly inconsistent”.

“It is actually something which in principle does and should work. But I would argue that it should capture [more] people,” he said. “There’s nothing at all sinister about lobbying, but the register itself is an entirely incomplete and inconsistent construct.

Lobbying firms often do not register all their advisers, arguing some are not actually engaged in lobbying work. Howard-era minister and former National Party president Larry Anthony took his name off the register in 2015 despite being a founding director of registered lobbying firm SAS Group. In 2017, he told the Herald he was “not directly a lobbyist” and didn’t need to register.

Counsel House, led by former Labor adviser Claire March, names only a handful of its staff on the register, leaving out several ex-MPs who are listed as advisers on the company’s website, such as former federal Liberal minister Jane Prentice. Ms March said a number of her staff “don’t lobby, or don’t lobby federally”, and were engaged in strategic communications and public affairs instead.

Tom Harley, managing director of consultancy firm Dragoman Global and a former Liberal Party vice-president, registered in 2018 following reports in the Guardian about Dragoman’s lobbying activities. He remains Dragoman’s only registered lobbyist, and the firm has only one registered client, the ASX-listed engineering services firm Worley Limited.

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