Voluntary registration of lobbying is worthless

By Gary Murphy

Harry McGee the political correspondent of the Irish Times had a very interesting article in Saturday’s paper  Irish political lobbying: who’s who and how does it work

In it he notes that despite the current government pledging in its revised programme for government to introduce a register for lobbyists, so far there have been no movers to make good on that commitment. More worryingly he states that ‘according to sources, the growing preference within Government is for a voluntary register’.

If lobbying is about gaining access to decision makers, all a voluntary register will do, if anyone could even be bothered to sign up to it, is  simply tell the public who the lobbyists are. By not making such lobbyists reveal whom they are in effect lobbying, or what they are lobbying on, the public is none the wiser as to the pressures being brought on decision makers by paid lobbyists. Accordingly, accountability is less likely to be ensured in any such voluntary system.

There was a lot of bleating at the Green party conference last weekend about the corrupt influence of corporate donations with one delegate going so far as to suggest that corporate donations equalled corruption. Well one way of trying to remove the influence of money in politics is by implementing a proper mandatory register of lobbyists. A register of lobbyists should try to capture the information of who is accessing whom, what for, and what monies, if any, change hands. In principle lobbyists should not be against having such a register, and governments should want it, as it should keep transparent what is a legal entity; lobbying of government. In that context what is being regulated is behaviour by interests who have potentially the money to have their expectations met by the access they have.

Registering lobbyists is not about regulating speech, but about preventing undue influence, including abuse of dominant financial position of some interest groups, including private companies. The key is to ensure that what is written into the regulation does not hinder the average citizen from doing what they have always done which is lobby their respective representative. The whole point of a register is to have a system as transparent as possible. This benefits the lobbyist, the legislator and the citizens. Regulation should be something that gives all stakeholders confidence in the system and in that context it must initially be kept simple and not overburden lobbyists with legislation. Finally enforcement of legislation is the key. Any such register should be controlled and monitored by an agency such as the Standards in Public Office Commission. This should ensure public confidence in the process.

Fine Gael’s New Politics document provides a good, if not perfect, framework for a register of lobbyists. Why for instance don’t Fine Gael include politicians, particularly former ministers, as in the case of Tom Parlon, in their cooling off proposals which state that former officials cannot join private companies for at least a year if that company works for, or with the State, in a way that relates to the former official’s work.

Nevertheless Fine Gael’s mandatory register, which is similar to the Labour party’s proposals, would, if implemented, be an important step in showing that the Irish state is serious about informing its citizens as to who has access to decision making and decision makers. If the Greens sign up to a voluntary code they will have missed a glorious chance to make a difference to transparency in the Irish public policy and made a mockery of their own complaints about corporate donations.

3 thoughts on “Voluntary registration of lobbying is worthless

  1. @Gary
    Interesting piece.

    Is it true that the FG proposals are based on a Canadian way of registering lobyyists?
    Do you know if this Canadian model applies at both Federal and Provincial levels?
    Given that it has been reported that that the FG proposals differ from the Canadian “model”, can you offer any view on the differences in terms of
    1. reasons/logic for the changes;
    2. merits or otherwise of the FG changes;
    3. other models from other “smaller” western-style democracies?

  2. Some of the Fine Gael proposals on registering lobbyists do seem to be based on the federal Canadian model which was originally introduced in 1989, amended in 1995, 2003 and again in 2008. There are differences between the federal model and some of the models in the differing provinces. As it stands Ontario (1998); Nova Scotia (2001); British Columbia (2001); Quebec (2002); Newfoundland (2005) and Alberta (2007) all have registers of lobbyists. In work with my colleagues Raj Chari of TCD and John Hogan of DIT we show that the Canadian federal is the most robust of these in terms of transparency and accountability but it is also well to note that most American states and the American federal legislation is more stringent than that which exists in Canada.

    We have had a look at both the Labour and Fine Gael proposals and according to our scoring system the Labour proposals are slightly more robust, scoring 31 out of 100, to Fine Gael’s 19, this probably being due to the fact that they have actually had four different iterations of their bill. One of the weaknesses in the Fine Gael proposals is that, I suppose not surprisingly, it tends to be a bit vague and would need to be filled out with specifics as to penalties and also the mechanics as to how the regulator will function. For comparative purposes Canada federal scores 50, US federal scores 62, while Washington State scores a whopping 87!

  3. Pingback: The confessions of Ahern and Cowen – The Story

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