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.