Features Australia

Whose party is it, anyway?

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

The writing may be on the wall for those lobbyist Liberal Party factional bosses who have successfully defied the decrees of former PM Abbott and NSW Premier O’Farrell aimed at ensuring ‘transparency, integrity and honesty’ in lobbyists’ relationships with government. At last the Liberal Party itself is reported to have taken a stand on principle against the potential for conflict of interest and possible corruption these leaders sought to prevent. According to media reports, the April meeting of the NSW Liberal State Council narrowly passed my motion that ‘In line with the NSW and Federal Lobbyists Codes, lobbyists be ineligible to hold any management and policy determination roles, including as members of preselection panels, in the NSW Division of the Liberal Party’. And in February the NSW Premier’s Department instituted a review of the operations of the Lobbyists Code. This followed last year’s rejection, without explanation, of my complaint that two lobbyists had, in clear breach of the Code and its stated objectives, acted as proxies for members of the state executive (positions specifically prohibited by the legislation) in the 2016 Liberal Senate preselection. There has been no word of any outcome of that review, there were no public hearings and no acknowledgement of my lengthy submission to that review. But at least NSW is going through the motions of reviewing its code in the face of its inadequate implementation, whereas my request for the Prime Minister’s Department to correct that section of the federal code that they claim fails to prevent lobbyists acting as proxies for prohibited political positions, has resulted in no corrective action.

The need for the NSW review is evident; ‘The code requires lobbyists to strictly separate their activities as lobbyists from any personal activities or involvement in a political party’ and lists what the bureaucracy imagines are relevant prohibited positions. But what it needs is a statement of the banned activities themselves such as preselections and influencing policy where the potential for conflicts of interest arise.

There are natural objections in a political party which places such emphasis on individual freedoms, to limiting the freedom of anyone to exercise their democratic right to be fully involved in the political process. Unfortunately, the pyramid structure of the Liberal Party, which concentrates power at the apex at the expense of those at grass roots level, enables factional operatives to manipulate the system, with rival factions rotating at the top and exercising the winner-take-all approach of what is good for their faction becomes paramount above what is good for the Liberal Party – or the nation. If Liberal icon and former PM John Howard’s public proposals for plebiscites of grass roots members for preselections and office-bearers (rebuffed by the factions dominating state executive who stand to lose power) were to be successful at July’s party reform convention, there would be no need for any prohibitions on lobbyists; the thousands of members freely exercising their right to vote for their local parliamentarians would overwhelm the factional control now exercised over the tiny fraction of the membership currently permitted to be selectors.

Criticism of factional-boss lobbyists selecting Liberal Party candidates, particularly in NSW, is no reflection on generally ethical lobbying at large. And by focussing only on lobbyists acting for third parties, the present codes ignore the issue of in-house lobbying by corporations and pressure groups. Scrutiny of lobbyists also contributes to a healthy democratic system. The problem for the Liberal Party emerged largely due to the lobbyists partners and factional heavyweights, former state MP Michael Photios and former state party president Nick Campbell, who once overtly, but now covertly, control the NSW Party’s state executive. The Abbott/O’Farrell Lobbyists Codes were supposed to prevent lobbyists from being involved in ‘ANY position’ running political parties while lobbying for political favours for their paid clients; favours sought from those politicians whose preselections to run for, and retain, political office they had the capacity to influence – along with their policies. But that is not how the Codes are now being administered under the new regimes of PM Turnbull and NSW Premier Berejiklian who have yet to endorse their predecessors’ principled stance against lobbyist/factional bosses. Those administering the state and federal Codes have determined that the wording of these codes did not prevent the Photios/Campbell lobbying partnership from playing key roles in the selection of Senate candidates for last year’s federal election, along with other controversial preselections. And until the latest State Council meeting, the Liberal Party itself had no matching rules preventing this evident potential for conflict of interest and political corruption.

Ironically, the self-serving factional determination to ‘reward’ factional loyalty by providing its apparatchiks, in several recent mind-boggling examples, easy rides into safe parliamentary seats (no matter what the quality and potential of other possible candidates), may ultimately prove counter-productive for the Photios/Campbell lobbyist stable of Premier State in NSW and Capital Hill in Canberra. By adding to the growing disillusionment with the political class, evidenced by the Liberals’ primary support (and membership) falling to near record lows, this sort of factional lack of concern for other than self-interest enhances the prospect of Liberal defeats at federal and NSW levels. Such losses of office would, on past performance, be disastrous for the Photios business model. Last time Labor was in power in NSW, the then Photios lobbying business, MP Consulting Pty Ltd, ended up in such poor shape it entered administration and settled its $351,798.78 debt to the Tax Office at only 7 cents in the dollar – a loss to federal revenue of $327,000. Photios then arose, phoenix-like from the ashes as Premier State Consulting Pty Ltd after the Liberals won the NSW election and business boomed. A Liberal defeat, resulting from the unintended consequence of factional politics destroying the Liberal Party’s status and electoral standing, could prove costly once again for Photios – and maybe the Tax Commissioner.

So it could be in Photios’s financial best interests – and in the public interest – to follow his recent nominal stepping down as leader of his faction by deserting it altogether and supporting the John Howard anti-faction reform process at the July convention as the only real hope of saving the Liberals from what could, to Photios, be a very expensive defeat.

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