Business Irish

Friday 28 October 2016

The new lobbying register proves its worth by showing us how politics really works

Published 28/01/2016 | 02:30

As was often the case with TV’s ‘Yes Minister’, do we want the policies of civil servants?
As was often the case with TV’s ‘Yes Minister’, do we want the policies of civil servants?

After years of investigations and a cost of hundreds of millions of euro, one thing we should have got out of our various tribunals of inquiry was an effective and transparent set of rules and disclosures about lobbying.

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Contacts between public officials, politicians and ministers on the one hand, and those who have a vested interest in persuading them to change public policy (or not), on the other hand, need to have some rules and openness.

It took a long time but eventually, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin brought through the Registration of Lobbying Bill.

Incredibly, over 1,000 lobbyists registered under the new legislation and in recent weeks came the publication of the first official record of political activities. In all, the new register showed that 568 returns were made for the period from September to December 2015.

There are few surprises in the lobbying contacts published for those three months, yet there is enough material in there to get a sense of why the register is so important.

When people think of lobbying, they think of big business. Corporate lobbying is a fact of life and something that often simply has to be done. Public policy makers might not be informed about the implications of policy decisions they make.

Industry groups, such as the Irish Farmers Association or Ibec, are among the biggest lobbyists in the country. It is hardly surprising that they clocked up more than 100 lobbying contacts each during the period. Anything less and they might not be doing their job.

Professional lobby groups welcomed the wide reach of the new legislation because it means that not just lobbyists have to register. Any business or individual making an approach to a public official with a view to influencing public policy comes under the legislation.

Lobbyists welcomed this, because without it, they might be out of a job. Imagine if a corporation, seeking to apply discreet pressure on a minister could have a chat with him at a race meeting about an issue, but if the corporation paid a lobbyist to do the same thing, it would have to be recorded on a public register.

Lobbying contacts disclosed in the first set of returns give an interesting insight into who talks to whom and why.

Former secretary general of the Department of Finance John Moran, who is now a consultant, lobbied Michael Noonan about State contracts for Japanese bank Nomura. Mr Moran met Mr Noonan and Des Carville, who runs the unit that owns the State's bank shares. It is an unusual set of circumstances given that Mr Moran was Mr Carville's superior at the department, but that isn't anybody's fault.

Musgrave, the SuperValu operator, with sales of €4.5bn and partially owned by a prominent Cork family, lobbied the Government for tax breaks for family businesses.

Musgrave chief executive Hugh MacKeown asked for "a more favourable tax regime that supports the longevity of family businesses, during a discussion with the Taoiseach's special adviser.

The contacts came about after MacKeown made a speech last year on the subject, where Enda Kenny had been present.

Musgrave may well have some solid points to make on how legislative change on this issue would benefit a range of family businesses and even the wider economy. The contact shows how senior corporate leaders can get access to key influential people, but in the real world, could it ever be any other way?

That is a simple fact of life and the best way of dealing with it is to have these contacts out in the open.

Aviation leasing group Avolon, founed by Domhnall Slattery and bought out by a Chinese conglomerate, lobbied the Irish government on the benefits of reopening an Irish embassy in Iran's capital, Tehran. After lifting sanctions, enormous trade opportunities, especially in aviation leasing, should open up. Avolon is on record as saying how big the market could become in aviation leasing and has its sights on growing there.

So, it is in Avolon's interest if an Irish government presence is there on the ground. The point is, it might also be beneficial to Ireland. Perhaps the Government might have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the embassy issue but as companies like Avolon, and perhaps others, put pressure on it, re-establishing a diplomatic presence there would make commercial sense.

It is useful to know these contacts take place. Publishing details of them takes a lot of the mystique out of what are basic communications around what governments do.

We have to ask ourselves how politicians become informed about what are the best policy decisions to make. Do we really want the policies of civil servants? Just as lobbying shouldn't automatically be considered improper (charities have to lobby like crazy too), it isn't always innocent either.

There have been cases in the past in Irish politics where a legislative change has benefited just one company. These are rare but can happen. Imagine if we'd had a lobbying register in place from about 1980 onwards. Would we have had the need for the Mahon, Flood, Moriarty, DIRT, and Beef Tribunal inquiries? It would be totally wrong to suggest there would not have been a need for any of those inquiries. But some things might not have happened while others might have played out differently.

I remember talking to a former witness at the Flood Tribunal who said improper influence isn't all about brown envelopes or cash. It is often about friendships. He asked me to imagine asking a public official for assistance with a planning or policy matter. The official doesn't ask for money but mentions that they have a son or a nephew or niece looking for a job at the moment.

Some things just can't be stamped out of the system. Our lobbying register is part of a healthy change. Our legislation on this is much more comprehensive than in the UK.

The British legislation, introduced in 2014, only covers contacts with ministers and permanent secretaries. It also only applies to third party or professional lobbyists and not in-house lobbyists. Our act also includes a code of conduct for lobbyists.

Without reform of the British system, lobbyists over there could find themselves cut out of the game as clients make the approaches themselves, which would come under the radar.

Our new system is just in its infancy. There are still outstanding issues. For example, the cooling-off period for public servants is just one year, where they join the private sector and there could be a conflict. This is short of the two-year period recommended by transparency advocates.

Two years would be better but I would acknowledge that it could discourage people from the private sector joining the public sector for a few years with a view to leaving again. We would like to see more private sector expertise moving into the public sector, but equally the mass exodus from the likes of the Central Bank in recent years has not been healthy.

Here are two good quotes on the subject of lobbying:

1 American commentator Bill Press described lobbying as the "second oldest profession in the world.

2 When Harold Pinter was lobbying to have London's Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theatre, playwright Tom Stoppard wrote back: "Have you thought, instead, of changing your name to Harold Comedy?"

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