Is a proper register of lobbyists finally on the way or is this the politics of the long finger?

by Gary Murphy (July 29 2010)

It seems that the Minister for the Environment John Gormley is ready to move on implementing a register of lobbyists. Speaking at a meeting of Green Party members in Limerick last weekend, he said that he intended to change the way politics was funded and to curb the influence of lobbyists, when the Dáil returns in September. Gormley said that his planned reforms on corporate donations to political parties would also involve the introduction of a register of lobbyists to regulate their activities. Strongly criticising the influence of lobbyists in the political process, Gormely noted:

“These individuals or companies who are paid handsomely by companies to achieve certain policy objectives have ready access to those in power. Many of them have previously been involved in political parties and know the system and the personalities. They also know the journalists and opinion formers. The influence of lobbyists is pervasive and at times pernicious. This is why we need a register of lobbyists to regulate their activities. It would immediately allow the public to identify these individuals and the causes they espouse.”

And for those of us who have been calling for such a register for a number of years, we might say hurrah for John Gormley. The trouble is that John Gormley has been saying it for years too. A register of lobbyists was part of the Green manifesto in the 2007 election. A register for lobbyists is mentioned in the Fianna Fail – Green – PD programme for government. An even firmer commitment to such a register is mentioned in the revised Fianna Fail – Green programme for government agreed in October 2010.

The Department of the Environment has been considering a register of lobbyists for even longer than the lifetime of this government. In a report for the department in August 2006, Raj Chari of TCD and myself advised them that “being proactive in establishing some sort of register of lobbyists would be a good initial first step in ensuring that the perception of undue influence is something that is not an issue in Ireland. One would have thought that such a first step would be warmly welcomed by politicians, officials, lobbyists and citizens alike in order to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance in the Irish political system”. Our report in which we were asked to examine and assess how lobbying regulation worked in different states across the world, and to recommend how it might work in Ireland, came after an earlier report in 2004 from Mary Malone, when the department sought an itinerary on global lobbying regulation. The Labour Party has introduced legislation designed to regulate lobbying on five occasions; twice in 1999, then again in 2000, 2003 and 2008. In 2007 the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, after much deliberation on the issue, called for the establishment of a credible registration system under which lobbyists would regularly declare the clients on whose behalf they were working. And of course Fine Gael has now also got in on the act with its own version of a lobbying register.

Recent research work that I have carried out with Raj Chari and John Hogan suggests that there is in fact little opposition in Ireland from either politicians or practitioners to a register of lobbyist. So what has kept John Gormley from bringing such forward such legislation prior to the forthcoming Dáil session. Why has it taken so long? The most important issue of all though, as I have pointed out in a previous posting on this site, is what type of register will be implemented. Noises emanating from journalists, quoting government sources, say that any such register of lobbyists is likely to be of a voluntary nature. A voluntary registration of lobbyists would, however, be virtually worthless and would be against all best practice internationally. If John Gormley really wants to live up to his fine words in Limerick to his fellow Greens, he needs to win the argument in government that the registration of lobbyists cannot be based on any voluntary system. Such a system will not ensure accountability and will not to use Minister Gormley’s own words “immediately allow the public to identify these individuals and the causes they espouse.” If the forthcoming legislation recommends a voluntary system then the government would be better off not implementing it at all and would serve the citizens of this country much better by continuing to put a mandatory system on the long finger. That’s how pointless a voluntary system would be.

4 thoughts on “Is a proper register of lobbyists finally on the way or is this the politics of the long finger?

  1. In the spirit of the title of this post I can only paraphrase Captain Renault in ‘Casablanca’: I’m shocked – shocked – to find that, while there is so much (apparent) agreement in principle, there is no willingness to enforce a mandatory register of lobbyists.

    Any attempt to lift even a corner of the veil covering the real process of policy-making will be resisted forcefully by the powers-that-be – and by those aspiring to exercise these powers.

    • Why are you shocked? That’s how Irish politics works by those in the inner circle referring to the government as ‘they’ instead of ‘we’ or ‘us’ and then deflecting attention onto some other meaningless issue.

      Also, every single person elected to Leinster House, or appointed, has to in my opinion be compromised financially because we don’t know where they get the money to fund their campaigns from, or why, and if it was all so above board with no favours asked or expected, then they’d publish the information. The fact none of them do, can only mean they have something to hide and the public are naive in the extreme if they think it is only Fianna Fáil which is riddled with cronyism.

      Another reason why there will be no deep or meaningful reform of governance in Ireland with a Fine Gael/Labour government.

  2. @Desmond FitzGerald,

    You may have missed the fact that my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek and I was obliquely conforming what you state explicitly.

    In today’s IT the former chairperson of Democrats Abroad, Kate FitzGerald, is seeking to chivvy the younger generation along:

    Drawing on the recent US presidential election she, quite rightly, highlights the role of young, newly politcially-engaged activists and voters in delivering Obama his popular majority. They became, in effect, the median voters that often decide the outcome of elections in two bloc systems. (The attraction of median voters to factions seeking to secure election has long been documented in the literature – e.g., Downs’s ‘An Economic Theory of Democracy’ (1957) and, even further back, Hotelling’s ‘Stability in Competition’ (1929).)

    Since the election it has become ‘politics as usual’ (blighted by increasing polarisation of the parties that has exacerbated the malign impacts of inherent flaws such as partisan re-districting for the House of Represenatatives, non-proportionality in the Senate and the cash-influence nexus) and, despite some signal legislative successes, many of the young voters who flocked to Obama’s banner have become disillusioned and disengaged.

    Unfortunately, in Ireland, mobilising some of the younger citizens as median voters that would provoke some change is extremely unlikely. The broad outlines of the result of the next general election are reasonably clear. And, even if the outcome were finely balanced, there is every likelihood that ‘politics as usual’ would triumph and they would become as disengaged and disillusioned as their US counterparts.

    FF-lite seems to have triumphed in FG and Labour has leapt aboard a populist band-wagon. As I have observed previously, the only possible change-inducing development would be for the modern, liberal-centist strand in FG to reach out to the few politicans in FF broadly in the same camp and to attract centrist and mildly left-of-centre voters currently migrating to Labour.

    Are there politcians out there with the required guts and vision?

  3. Great post Gary, it’s really important that people with expertise in a given area help to point out whether a proposal is actually a useful reform or just a half-hearted sop that can be pointed to as a ‘real reform’ by the Greens.

    Furthermore, you point out the crucial dimension that seperates a real and useful register from a useless sop: voluntary versus mandaotry registration. Good to know, thanks.

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