Fair game? Why Karl Bitar lobbying for Crown is undemocratic

Karl Bitar should be open about his contacts with government in his new role. AAP/Danny Rose

The former National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Karl Bitar, has been appointed Head of Government Affairs for Crown Ltd, operators of Melbourne’s Crown Casino and Perth’s Burswood.

It’s a crucial time for the gambling industry, as independent MP Andrew Wilkie holds the government to ransom on issue of pokie machines. Mr Wilkie is demanding legislation to be introduced which will require gamblers to set a limit on the amount of money they’re prepared to lose before they start playing the machines.

The Conversation asked Joo-Cheong Tham, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne for his views.

What do think about the appointment of Karl Bitar to Crown?

I think it’s ethically suspect and raises serious questions as to how lobbying proceeds in this country.

What sort of influence are Crown Casinos buying?

While it remains to be seen, the danger here is of unfair access and influence. There are two sources of such unfairness. First, Crown has the ability to pay for Mr Bitar’s services that is not likely to be enjoyed by other groups and companies concerned with the proposed gambling laws. Second, Mr Bitar is able to leverage his relationships with ALP ministers in a way that may distort public decision-making.

Mr Bitar wasn’t a government employee, but a member of the ALP staff so he didn’t gain his influence via the public purse. What is the problem here?

The problem comes from the threat of Mr Bitar’s lobbying to a cardinal principle of public decision-making: government decisions are made in the public interest. This principle is threatened if certain groups or companies are able to unfairly influence Ministers; rather than being made in the public interest, the risk is that government decisions are biased towards these privileged groups. Whether such influence comes from former Ministers or public servants, or persons like Mr Bitar is beside the point - it is still unfair influence.

It was a Labor government who gave the licence for a casino in Victoria. Is the issue not with what he’ll be doing, but who he’ll be doing it for?

That’s not my view. From my perspective, any company shouldn’t be allowed to have unfair access in order to influence legislation or government policy.

Are you saying that no company should be able to hire a lobbyist ever again?

No. Companies are entitled to lobby governments; indeed, this is an important feature of democratic decision-making. However, such lobbying should be conducted fairly. Also, it should not undermine the integrity of public decision-making.

Transparency of lobbying is of crucial importance here. Yet, it will not be forthcoming in the case of Mr Bitar’s lobbying. As an in-house lobbyist, he is not subject to the modest disclosure obligations under the federal government’s code of conduct for lobbyists. Even if he were, important details would still be hidden from the public: When did he meet government ministers? What topics were discussed?

Do you think it’s anti-democratic?

It is undemocratic because Mr Bitar’s lobbying will occur behind closed doors – the principle of transparency is a cornerstone of democracy. It will also undermine democratic decision-making if the appointment of Mr Bitar leads to unfair access to federal Ministers and public servants by Crown Casino, access that other groups in the gambling policy area are not able to secure.