The small world of lobbyists and the Rudd Government

HandshakeThe appointment of David Epstein, Kevin Rudd’s chief of staff from July 2007 until last month, to the position of executive general manager government and corporate affairs for Qantas from 1 December demonstrates three things about how government works in this country.

The first is that Canberra is a very small world of intricate relationships and close networks. Within that small world an even smaller world of government lobbying operates. Epstein is only one example among many of the backwards-and-forwards movement of operatives between government, business and lobbying. His own career demonstrates this as do those of many others. Epstein has held a range of Labor positions in government and opposition since 1981 interspersed with periods in government relations with the Australian Telecommunications Industry Association and with Government Relations Australia, a commercial lobbying firm.

Earlier this week, for instance, the Secretary of the ACT Branch of the Labor Party, Matthew Cossey, resigned to join the multinational defence systems and hardware company, Raytheon. His new job is euphemistically described as helping Raytheon negotiate with the federal government. In fact, he will become a lobbyist. Hawker Britton, the lobbying firm with the strongest Labor connections, is now headed in Canberra by Simon Banks, formerly deputy chief of staff to Kevin Rudd and several other Labor Opposition leaders, whose CV looks very similar to that of Epstein. Canberra lobbyists and big corporations are loading up with Labor insiders just as Washington is now loading up with Democrat insiders. That is the way the lobbying world works.

Second, the distinction the Rudd government makes in the new Lobbying Code of Conduct and Register of Lobbyists between commercial lobbyists (Banks) and corporate government relations executives (Epstein), is untenable. What applies to one should apply to the other if the public are to have confidence in a relatively transparent level playing field in dealings with government. Under the regulatory scheme the activities of Banks are regulated yet those of Epstein will not be. Yet in terms of political function the distinction is immaterial. It shows that, like its predecessor during the Hawke and Keating years, the Rudd scheme is too narrow. This makes it essentially a public relations exercise because it cannot address satisfactorily the whole world of lobbying.

Third, the provisions of the Code of Conduct relating to post-government service of ministers, parliamentary secretaries and ministerial advisers certainly do apply to Epstein. These arrangements specify a 12-month cooling off period during which such persons shall not engage in lobbying activities relating to any matter with which they had official dealings in their last 12 months of employment.

Epstein is certainly becoming a lobbyist once again after a year as Rudd’s closest adviser. Senator John Faulkner, Special Minister of State, the minister responsible for all such matters has spoken to Epstein and reassured the House of Representatives that he will comply with these guidelines. However this is not enough. The perception of closed rather than open government is very important. Epstein will take an enormous amount of corporate memory and unofficial knowledge with him from the Prime Minister’s office to Qantas, whatever his official dealings happen to have been.

The appointment breaches the spirit if not the letter of the Lobbying Code of Conduct and makes a mockery of the intentions of the scheme to calm popular concerns after the squalid Burke affair in Western Australia. It clearly allows a situation where big corporate money is allowed to buy special access to government. Epstein has not been offered this job because of his 'good looks' or even his undoubted generic skills and broad experience, but because he is an insider. He not only knows how the Rudd government works at the highest level but also how the levers of government can be pulled. The unfortunate consequence is to reinforce once again the widespread popular belief that Australian democracy is not played on a level field.

John WarhurstEmeritus Professor John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and the Flinders University of South Australia. He is author of Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals and the Lobbying Industry (UNSW Press 2007)




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