Heading off scandal: Why ICAC is taking a close look at lobbying in SA

South Australia’s Independent Commission Against Corruption can’t give details – due to secrecy built into the ICAC laws – but commissioner Ann Vanstone is concerned about the integrity risks posed by lobbying in SA. She explains why she wants your views on how regulations should change.

Sep 13, 2023, updated Sep 13, 2023
SA's ICAC has concerns about potential integrity risks in the state's lobbying industry. File image

SA's ICAC has concerns about potential integrity risks in the state's lobbying industry. File image

The Commission has long held an interest in the integrity risks involved in lobbying activities directed towards public officers.

In many ways, the activities of government, Parliament and the wider public sector are underpinned by citizens informing public officials of their interests and issues. Lobbying of this sort is a necessary part of our democratic process, and can contribute positively to the effective working of public administration and the achievement of good outcomes in government. In a community as diverse and as physically dispersed as ours, it is important that members of the public, interest groups and businesses have access to government decision makers.

Unfortunately, access to and influence over decision makers is also sought by the dishonest and corrupt, those harboring improper motives and those seeking undue advantage. Sometimes, too, our decision makers may be vulnerable or amenable to improper influence, either through carelessness and weakness, or, worse, through a desire to advance their own personal interests.

Lobbying methods that lack transparency and fairness can expose public administration to the risk of bias, nepotism or cronyism and even corruption.

We have seen this play out in other jurisdictions – to the point of serious criminality – and it would be naïve to suggest that South Australia is somehow immune to these risks.

In the course of its investigations, the Commission has had to consider allegations that involve lobbying and the exercise of influence which the public might regard as questionable, if not unacceptable and potentially corrupt.

Would the introduction of additional measures of transparency (e.g. the publication of ministerial diaries) reduce the potential for improper influence or corrupt conduct in
government decision-making?

Due to legislated reporting restrictions imposed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 2012, most of the worrying behavior we see in lobbying practices cannot be fully detailed to the public. Much of the questionable behavior we see will not amount to criminal conduct, and so will not be revealed during court proceedings. Nevertheless, such conduct indicates the presence of a real risk of corruption in public administration.

The Commission has observed conduct raising questions about the vulnerability of politicians to improper influence, the resilience of the public sector to lobbying pressure, and the use of connections and associations to gain inside access to key decision makers.

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An example of conduct of this kind was the subject of a report, Yes Minister, published by the Commission in March this year, which examined the corruption risks inherent in receiving unsolicited proposals. This is, of course, a form of lobbying.

The Commission believes it is necessary to examine the regulation of both lobbyists and the lobbied in this state. We have released a discussion paper entitled Lobbying and Influence in the hope of sparking meaningful debate about, and potential reform of, our lobbying regime.

Lobbying in South Australia is regulated primarily by the Lobbyists Act 2015 and the Lobbyists Regulations 2016. The Commission will give consideration to the robustness of the regulatory scheme created by the Act and Regulations, and whether any amendments should be made to them.

Similar examinations have recently been conducted by integrity agencies in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and in each case recommendations were made for the reform of lobbying regulations, including universal recommendations that the definition of ‘lobbying’ (in the relevant Act, Regulations or other applicable regulatory scheme) be broadened.
Recently, Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission released the report of its Operation Sandon investigation, exposing the troubling behaviours of well resourced individuals buying political influence in the context of planning and land use decisions. Recommendations arising from that investigation included further reform of lobbying regulations.

There are important questions to ask about how effectively lobbying activity is managed in this state. For example:

  • Is the current definition of ‘lobbyist’ adequate to capture much of the influencing activity that takes place in South Australia?
  • Would the introduction of additional measures of transparency (e.g. the publication of ministerial diaries) reduce the potential for improper influence or corrupt conduct in
    government decision-making?
  • Should requirements to disclose lobbying activities be expanded in the lead up to elections?
  • Which categories of people should be restricted from lobbying, and for how long? Former politicians or political operatives? Former high-ranking public servants?
  • Are some areas of public administration more vulnerable to the threat of improper influence and, if so, should different regulations apply in these areas?

South Australia has the opportunity to look deeply into the standards, expectations and management of lobbying and influencing activities. A thorough examination of lobbying at this juncture might prevent the scandals seen interstate from occurring here – scandals that erode public confidence in the integrity of our decision makers and which leave public administration vulnerable to corruption, ultimately resulting in damage to the public interest.

I encourage anyone with interest in the topic to contact the Commission with their thoughts and experiences.

Ann Vanstone KC is Commissioner for South Australia’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.

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